A visit to Camp David

An extra-heavy dose of folksy wisdom

President Jimmy Carter (Richard Thomas) having a frank exchange with the Almighty.
  • President Jimmy Carter (Richard Thomas) having a frank exchange with the Almighty.

Perhaps there’s a secret society of actors who have played the President of the United States. Membership is as simple as standing onstage, or in front of a camera, and portraying the holder of this country’s highest elected office. Every actor who gets the nod, or director working behind the scenes, must have had to ask himself (or herself): What kind of president will you be?

An invented president can be anything. Fictional presidents carry none of history’s burdens. They can all be as wise as Lincoln, as bold as Washington...or they can be Tug Benson, if that’s what the narrative calls for. Fictional presidents deliver speeches of such grandeur that certain people still get choked up when, 20 years since it ran in theaters, President Thomas J. Whitmore’s “We will not go quietly into the night!” speech plays through a light static fog in the background of the new Independence Day trailer.

Such can be the power of the office.

Acting as a real president must be much, much harder. For Lawrence Wright’s Camp David (playing at the Old Globe through June 19) director Molly Smith and actor Richard Thomas settled on the following bartender’s recipe for their version of a historical leader negotiating a truce between Israel and Egypt.

Jimmy Carter:

  • — One part smug self-assurance
  • — One part canny diplomatic awareness
  • — Two parts exuberance in the face of flagging popularity
  • — A twist of angry belligerance
  • — An extra-heavy dose of folksy wisdom
  • — Enough earnest conversation with God to cover everything

Camp David

Combine all ingredients on a vintage, Harley Davidson golf cart. Mix by driving relentlessly back and forth across the stage for just under 90 minutes. The result may seem a lot more like ex–President Carter, the vocal human rights activist, than the beleaguered president of 1978; but it goes down easy and doesn’t require anything from the audience beyond a willingness to believe that peace in any form is possible, despite the unbearable weight of history suggesting otherwise.

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