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Inspired by Obama’s win, I checked the index of the Complete New Yorker for items in the “Fiction” category that contained the word “president.” I got 167 hits, and I’ve been happily reading ever since. This is the first of a series of posts I have planned on the results.


The darkness, strangeness, and complexity of the new President have touched everyone. There has been a great deal of fainting lately.

Sound sorta familiar? It’s from the second paragraph of Donald Barthelme’s story, “The President,” which appeared in The New Yorker on September 5, 1964. I can twist Barthelme’s story only so far to apply to Barack Obama, but I was amused by the echoes. The narrator’s girlfriend, for example, says of her new president, “He has some magic charisma which makes people—” and then she runs out of words for a moment. A precursor to “drinking the Obama juice,” perhaps?

Another character says,

“I’m not saying that the problems he faces aren’t tremendous, staggering. The awesome burden of the Presidency. But if anybody—any one man …”

Barthelme was being ironic, but in spite of myself, I really feel this way about Obama. Or try this:

What is going to happen? What is the new President planning? No one knows. But everyone is convinced that he will bring it off. Our exhausted age wishes above everything to plunge into the heart of the problem, to be able to say, “Here is the difficulty.” And the new President, that tiny, strange, and brilliant man, seems cankered and difficult enough to take us there. In the meantime, people are fainting.”

The fainting, of course, is a touch typical of Barthelme; the absurdity is part of why I love him. But since it’s Barthelme, it’s also there for a reason: this is not really a story about the President (who is, in Barthelme’s story, a “strange fellow,” and whose face clouds, on television, “when his name is mentioned,” as if “hearing his name frightens him”). It’s actually a story about the mysterious power of charisma, and the unknowable nature of other people.

Twice during the course of the story, for example, the narrator says, with only minor variations, “I regarded her with my warm kind eyes,” spotlighting the gulf between one’s intentions—how one feels and would like to be perceived—and how one is actually perceived. Then, too, it’s the odd duck who wins Barthelme’s election: the “handsome meliorist” full of “zest and programs” who runs against the strange, “cankered” President is “defeated by a fantastic margin.” Who can account for charisma?

Fifteen years later, in the March 19, 1979 issue of TNY, Mark Strand published “The President’s Resignation”, which initially seems to owe a great deal to Barthelme. For one thing, Strand chooses to focus his story on the President himself, just as Barthelme did—a highly unusual move, if my spot-check of the CNY index is to be believed.

For another, Strand’s president sounds a little like Barthelme’s: “Though his rise to power was meteroic, he was not a popular leader.” And both presidents are a bit goofy, by normal standards: just as Barthelme’s president used his “philosophical grasp of the death theme” to win his election, Strand’s president “made no promises before taking office but speculated endlessly about the kind of weather we would have during his term, sometimes even making a modest prediction.”

Once elected, Strand’s president builds a National Museum of Weather with public funds, “in whose rooms one could experience the climate of any day anywhere in the history of man.” Attending his resignation speech are couples with titles like “the First Minister of Potential Clearness & husband,” and the “Lord Chancellor of Abnormal Silences & father”—also reminiscent of Barthelme.

But once Strand’s president begins his speech, he leaves Barthelme behind:

From the beginning I have preached melancholy and invention, nostalgia and prophecy. The languors of art have been my haven. More than anything I have wished to be the first truly modern President, and to make my term the free extension of impulse and the preservation of chance.

Whoa Nelly! That’s not the sort of oratory one associates with the presidency. Sure, his speech still has its touches of Barthelmic humor, such as his fond memories of the “hours spent reading Chekhov aloud to you, my beloved Cabinet!” But here’s the heart of it:

Who can forget my proposals, petitions uttered on behalf of those who labored in the great cause of weather—measuring wind, predicting rain, giving themselves to whole generations of days—whose attention was ever riveted to the invisible wheel that turns the stars and to the stars themselves? How like poetry, said my enemies. They were right. For it was my wish to make nothing happen. Thank heaven it has been so, for my words would easily have been wasted along with the works they might have engendered. I have always spoken for what does not change, for what resists action, for the stillness at the center of man.

Strand’s president, in other words, is not a statesman, policy wonk, or warrior; he’s not a meliorist, “all zest and programs.” He’s the answer to the question, “What if America were ruled by a poet?” Politics is not what motivates him, but human consciousness, the mystery of being.

He’s impossible of course, even in fiction—hence his resignation—but reading Strand, you feel the idea’s wistful majesty.


Absolutely fantastic, Benjamin. Finally, a piece of writing about Obama’s victory that actually adds something new to the discourse!

Naah, naah, but thank you, Martin. Reading and thinking about presidential fiction, so to speak, has really been fun. More, of course, anon.

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2008 Webby Awards Official Honoree