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DEAR MISTER PRESIDENT by Adam Fitzroy
To start this new series of retrospective blog posts I've been asked to cast my mind back to the first book I ever had accepted by Manifold Press, which was DEAR MISTER PRESIDENT.
I was very lucky in that I knew everyone involved in the founding of Manifold Press, so right back as far as that famous conversation in the café they were already counting on me to submit a book or several whenever I could - and in fact DEAR MISTER PRESIDENT was ready at an early enough stage for it to be the 'guinea pig' book for all the processes and decision-making that followed, which is why it also received the Press's first ISBN. In fact, it was a book which - one way or another - had already been many years in the making.
I'm of an age to have been enchanted by the golden dream of 'Camelot' which heralded the election of John F. Kennedy as President of the United States back in 1960. He was glamorous and charismatic, and - although nowadays his legend is a little tarnished - it was impossible, at the time, not to be swept up in the excitement of it all. I'm not sure how much notice I took of the election itself, but I could definitely tell that the world was changing - a new 'pop group' from Liverpool had started making exciting noises, men were growing their hair long, women were wearing shorter and shorter skirts … everything that was stuffy and old-fashioned and reminiscent of post-war austerity was being swept away in favour of the bright, the loud, and the extremely colourful.
That was the start, for me, of a life-long love-affair with the glamour of the Presidency. In the years since, I'm afraid few of the real-life individuals who have occupied the post have been remotely attractive to me in terms of their looks, their personality or their politics. However there have during the same period been a wonderful array of fictional TV and film 'Presidents' who have often served as vessels for hopes and dreams of what an ideal President might turn out to be. To name but a few, there's Harrison Ford's President Marshall in 'Air Force One' who hot-wires a 747 with a table-knife; Jamie Foxx's President Sawyer in 'White House Down' who gets hands-on and joins in the mêlée when his home is invaded; Kevin Kline's Dave Kovic standing in for President Mitchell in 'Dave'; Bill Pullman's President Whitmore inspiring the troops with his very own Agincourt speech in 'Independence Day'; Morgan Freeman's President Beck in 'Deep Impact' and Presidents Bartlet, Walken and Santos from 'The West Wing' (Martin Sheen, John Goodman and Jimmy Smits respectively) who are all shown as decent men doing difficult jobs in difficult circumstances. (My all-time favourites, I think, are probably former Presidents Kramer and Douglas - Jack Lemmon and James Garner - who go on the road-trip from hell together in 'My Fellow Americans'.)
It's always seemed to me that fiction gives us Presidents we would like to have, men we feel we can rely on to take care of the nuclear launch codes, and at its most basic that was the game I wanted to play; create a fictional President and his world, and find a way of showing that although he may be flawed and dealing with his own personal demons he is still worthy of being entrusted with the safety of the planet. The fact that he would end up falling in love with a man was a given from the start, but it brought with it a couple of fascinating questions; first of all, what sort of individual would be capable of attracting such a man - and secondly, how would the other party react to finding himself the love interest of the most powerful man in the world? The answer, as far as I was concerned anyway, was that he should be capable of seeing the man rather than the title - which presented a further set of challenges of its own.
Watching 'The West Wing' enabled me to absorb a lot of background and ambience; which situations would require the presence of Secret Service/bodyguards, for example, and who would serve the President his coffee? This sort of thing has a long and illustrious pedigree; Martin Sheen, in interviews, reported having to learn how the President goes through a door, and 'The West Wing' is full of such small and unobtrusive details which are at least as interesting as the storylines. I also have a number of books about life at the White House dating back as far as the Truman reconstruction in 1948 which shed a certain amount of light on the way the establishment is organised; so much information is available - albeit in some cases not especially up to date - that it really wasn't necessary to make much up.
The difference between the hereditary concept of royalty and the more immediate but shorter-lived power of the Presidency is also intriguing to me. People of royal blood understand almost from the cradle that they have a certain position in the world and they are brought up to it, with expectations and preparations very carefully aligned. An aspiring politician may have eyes on the White House from a similarly early age but there's never any guarantee he (or she) will get there - and, if they do, their term is limited by law. Unlike being royal, therefore, the Presidency is something that can happen to (virtually!) anyone, and there's a 'before' and an 'after' as well as a 'during', which allows a series of contrasts to be explored. How does anyone prepare for a role involving such massive power and responsibility? How does it change them during their term of office? What are their hopes and ambitions for the remainder of their lives? William Howard Taft, for instance, was President for four years and later Chief Justice for nine; he regarded the latter as the more important post, and used to say that he sometimes forgot he'd ever been President at all. He sounds to me very much like the hero of Kipling's 'If' - capable of meeting with triumph and disaster and treating the two impostors both the same. This is the sort of resilience I would personally be hoping for not only in a President but also in a sane and well-balanced human being, which is what I'd really like to think a President might be!