The American President: A Most Optimistic Rom-Com

Sure, Aaron Sorkin’s movie is a boy-meets-girl romance. But it also insists on a love story between government and the governed.

Columbia Pictures
Here is the climactic romantic exchange from the romantic comedy The American President, the one that brings the movie’s central couple—the eponymous executive and his lobbyist girlfriend—to their happy ending:

President Andrew Shepherd: Sydney, I didn’t decide to send 455 to the floor to get you back.

Sydney Ellen Wade: I didn’t come back ‘cause you decided to send 455 to the floor.

Swoon, right? The lines, to put them in their proper context, are uttered in the Oval Office of the White House, epic orchestrals swelling epically in the background, on the day President Shepherd is to deliver the State of the Union to Congress and the American people. The exchange is followed by a passionate kiss, which is itself the culmination of, in rough order: the widower president dating Sydney after a chance run-in at the White House; their romance damaging his public approval ratings and thus his political capital and thus his ability to get Congress behind him on the crime bill he needs to get reelected; and, finally—I’m not sure whether a decades-old movie deserves an official spoiler alert, but just in case, SPOILER ALERT—the president betraying Sydney to achieve his political objectives, losing her in the process.
It’s the stuff of classic rom-com: Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy sends 455 to the floor. And if it all sounds extremely absurd, that’s because, to be clear, it most certainly is. (“Dig it, Ms. Wade,” an assistant tells Sydney, with full mid-’90s flair. “You’re the president’s girlfriend!”) The American President, however, was written by Aaron Sorkin, which means that its absurdities have a way of seeming much more epic than they actually are. The movie, for its many flaws, is a rom-com for the ages, its enduring appeal the result of both Sorkinian eloquence and the romance at the heart of the film. Which is about much more, in the end, than a boy and a girl and a carbon-emissions bill.
The American President was released 20 years ago today. The intervening decades brought, among so much else, 9/11, and wars both literal and figurative, and the Great Recession, and the housing crisis, and the White House’s transition from a Democratic administration to a Republican to a Democratic again. They saw the infamy of the “hanging chad” and the rise of the Tea Party and the normalization of the Internet and, in general, widespread public pessimism about the ability of government, at pretty much every level, to make meaningful change in the lives of those most ordinary and mythologized of creatures: “everyday Americans.”
The American President foresaw the prismatic political anxieties that would follow it. And it tried to preempt them. And this is the other way the movie functions as a rom-com: It assumes that the relationship between the president and the people is itself, in its way, a romantic one. The American President insists that the connections that tie the government and the governed are primarily emotional. It believes that politics caters most readily to those Americans who, as Stephen Colbert put it, “know with their hearts.”
And so: The film makes clear to its audience that President Shepherd is better than his Republican presidential opponent, Bob Rumson, not because of anything we’re told about Rumson’s policies or vision for the country, but because Shepherd is charming and well-educated and appreciative of America in a nerdy, tell-stories-about-the-Founders-at-cocktail parties kind of way. (Rumson, we are meant to understand, is none of those things.) Further, we’re meant to understand that the obvious better-ness exists not just on a political level, but a moral one. As Sydney puts it to Andy, exasperated at Rumson’s latest volley, “How do you have patience for people who claim they love America, but clearly can’t stand Americans?” Shepherd is Good, and Rumson is Bad, and these are truths Sorkin telegraphs over the course of the film—truths that we, too, can know with our hearts.
The American President is the cinematic predecessor of The West Wing, and it shares with that show not just assorted idealisms and occasional mansplainings and a general veneer of perky partisanship, but also very specific characters and figures. Its president is a former professor who has been goaded into political office by a best friend who also, conveniently, serves as his chief of staff. Its press secretary is a woman who is notable because of both her wit and the fact that she is unusually tall. Its speechwriter is a guy who is idealistic and overzealous and wunderkind-y. Its dialogue is snappy and full of the kind of light eruditions that congratulate and soothe in equal measure. “Come, friends, let us away,” A.J. McInerney, the best-friend-and-also-chief-of-staff, tells his fellow staffers. (McInerney is played by Martin Sheen, who plays President Josiah Bartlet on … yeah.)
The other thing The American President insists on, just like The West Wing, is the moral goodness of big government itself. The film, too, has faith in the convening power of politics. It, too, is progress porn. For all its nominal concentration on the relationship between Sydney and Andy, The American President’s most climactic scenes—and its most soaring lines—are reserved for the passionate and rewarding and occasionally volatile relationship shared between Andrew Shepherd and the American public. “People want leadership, Mr. President,” the speechwriter Lewis Rothschild tells Shepherd in a heated moment, “and in the absence of genuine leadership, they’ll listen to anyone who steps up to the microphone. They want leadership. They’re so thirsty for it they’ll crawl through the desert toward a mirage, and when they discover there’s no water, they’ll drink the sand.”
Later, President Shepherd will tell the American people, in full professorial mode:

America isn’t easy. America is advanced citizenship. You gotta want it bad, ‘cause it’s gonna put up a fight. It’s gonna say, You want free speech? Let’s see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who’s standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours. You want to claim this land as the land of the free? Then the symbol of your country can’t just be a flag; the symbol also has to be one of its citizens exercising his right to burn that flag in protest. Show me that, defend that, celebrate that in your classrooms. Then, you can stand up and sing about the “land of the free.”

That line comes during the other romantic climax of The American President, the one that brings Sydney back to the White House, the one that takes place when Shepherd—who has been stubbornly avoiding engagement with Rumson’s attacks—finally dispatches with his political opponent by way of a surprise press conference on the morning of the State of the Union. Shepherd announces that he’s scrapping his crime bill, re-writing it to create “a law that makes sense.” And he also announces, swoon, that he is sending the environmental bill—hi again, 455!—to the Congressional floor with a call for a 20-percent reduction in carbon emissions (rather than, as previously planned, a paltry 10 percent). He then gives his long exegesis on American democracy. America isn’t easy. America is advanced citizenship.
And he then delivers what is perhaps the most enduring line in a movie that also features Michael J. Fox, as Rothschild, uttering the line “no hopping, sir, no hopping!” Bringing the hammer down on Rumson’s repeated declarations of “I’m Bob Rumson, and I’m running for president,” Shepherd closes his game-changing press conference with, “I’m Andrew Shepherd, and I am the president.”
And! In the process of all this, woven into his rebuttal of Rumson and his soaring ode to the productive complications of American politics, President Andrew Shepherd defends the honor of one Sydney Ellen Wade.
Which is also to say: With a single off-the-cuff speech, rendered honestly and passionately, President Andrew Shepherd is able to, among other things, save his presidency, save his dignity, save his relationship, and, the partisan would argue, save his country. Which is on the one hand a testament to the Power of Words—a favorite preoccupation of Aaron Sorkin, the writer—but on the other a testament to The American President’s status as a sweepingly politicized rom-com. This is the president, doubling as a romantic lead, doing what the romantic lead will almost always do: excusing himself and redeeming himself via a Grand Romantic Gesture.
This makes The American President delightful as a rom-com; as a forecast of contemporary political culture, however, it is significantly less appealing. The logic of romance—passion, betrayal, heart-over-head—is awkward, and occasionally dangerous, when applied to politics. It’s the stuff that gives so much agency to “optics,” to “I know her heart,” to slogans and logos and What’s the Matter With Kansas. To the stuff, in the end, of truthiness.
Robert Redford was initially set to play Andy Shepherd in The American President: The actor, it’s said, was eager to be part of a “love story” set in the White House. When Rob Reiner was brought on as director, though, Redford bowed out, leaving the role for Michael Douglas: Reiner and Sorkin, Redford felt, had created a film that was too much about politics, and not enough romance. The irony, 20 years later, is how little merit Redford’s objections seem to have today. There’s love, and there’s government; it’s getting harder and harder, however, to tell the difference between the two.