Muffley ’08

The Q section in the Sunday News & Observer asks: What makes a perfect president? The centerpiece built around a wire story includes this list of “great — or at least provocative” presidents from movies and TV shows.

Such lists are always open to addition and subtraction. The credit line for this one cites “staff and wire reports” so it’s hard to know how it was compiled. The list is OK as is, but it could be better with some editing.

If I had been in a newsroom conversation for this list, I would have suggested removing President Jack Stanton of “Primary Colors.” The book made more of a mark than the movie, and John Travolta does not make for a memorable president. I would have pushed for adding Merkin Muffley, the president played by Peter Sellers in the wonderfully titled “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.”

The Muffley character is a rare voice of sanity in Stanley Kubrick’s Cold War comedy. This president attempts to make the best of the terrible situation that he faces, namely an unauthorized U.S. attack on the Soviet Union. Muffley is a mild-mannered leader working amid fools and madmen. Sellers, drawing inspiration from failed presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson, plays the straight role to perfection. He received an Oscar nomination for his performance. (He also plays the title character and Capt. Lionel Mandrake.)

In the face of imminent war, Muffley is dedicated to diplomacy. He invites the Soviet ambassador into the “war room” despite the objection of his top military adviser. Even in that environment, he works hard to mediate disputes. (“Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the war room.”)

Muffley deftly handles an inebriated Soviet premier in what would be the most difficult phone call in the history of the world. (“One of our base commanders, he had a sort of … Well, he went a little funny in the head.”) Muffley is deeply concerned about civilian casualties. (“You’re talking about mass murder, general. Not war!”) And he seems genuinely interested in Dr. Strangelove’s proposal for subterranean survival in a post-war world — not just for the female-to-male ratio of 10 to 1. (“You mean people could actually stay down there for a hundred years?”) Muffley’s efforts almost pay off, but of course, one U.S. plane carries through with the attack, setting off the Soviet “doomsday device.”

In addition to this classic depiction of a president, “Dr. Strangelove” also has a great line about newspapers. Confronted by the Soviet ambassador about an American doomsday device, Muffley denies any knowledge of the project. The ambassador’s reply: “Our source was The New York Times.”

As a character and as a leader, Muffley qualifies as great — or at least provocative. I hope that when this story rolls around again in 2012, he’ll make the list of memorable movie presidents.