April 23, 2013

How life imitates art (or, at least, television)

You might have noticed that reruns are popping up more frequently on the broadcast stations at this time of the year. So why, I ask you, should a television blog be any different? I originally wrote this piece back in 2009 for Our Word, but its central figure - disgraced former South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford - is very much back in the news today. And so this would seem to be an appropriate time to revisit how his hijinks validate the hokiest TV movies.  But if you want something new, check out this article, for which I was interviewed last week.

I’ve often said, in relation to the news, that “you can’t make this stuff up.” Well, here’s one that you not only could make up, but someone already did. Almost, that is.

Now, it’s not unusual to see a movie or television program with a plot that seems suspiciously to have been “ripped from today’s headlines,” but how often do you see a real-life story that seems to have been ripped off from fiction? It occurs to me that, in reading the tragic/absurd/outrageous story of South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, that this is the very kind of tale we might dismiss as ridiculous if we saw it in, for example, an episode of Matlock. Yet here is a true-life story that truly sets itself up for this kind of treatment.

In the TV movie The President’s Plane is Missing (1973, based on the novel by Robert Serling), the president’s plane – aka Air Force One – goes missing from radar screens. It isn’t missing for long, however, as the wreckage of the plane is soon discovered, the crash killing everyone on board including, presumably, the president. After all, he was on board, wasn’t he?

As you might expect, this story isn’t nearly that simple.

(Warning: Plot Spoilers Ahead!)

The surprise of The President’s Plane is Missing is that it isn’t really the President on the plane, you see. He’s off in secret conducting sensitive negotiations regarding a treaty that could defuse a potential nuclear war with China. Oh, that man whom everyone saw getting on Air Force One? Wasn’t him – it was an imposter (a relative, as I recall) whose purpose is to trick everyone into thinking that the President is headed out west for a little R&R in the midst of this Cold War tension. Meanwhile, the President can conduct the negotiations personally, without the glare and pressure of the press and others.

Buddy Ebsen, forced to leave a cushy job as VP to
become Acting President

If you’re still with me here, then it’s obvious that the crash of Air Force One (due to sabotage) throws a bit of a monkey wrench into the President’s plan. Soon enough, it becomes clear that the President wasn’t on that plane at all – it’s not the plane that’s missing, it’s the President! The negotiations are at such a sensitive point that he can’t afford to come out in public and reassure the nation of where he is – so he has to let the mystery fester. Throw in an incompetent, insecure Vice President (Buddy Ebsen, left) who assumes the mantle of Acting President with a determination to engage the Chinese in war, and you have the stuff of which potboilers are made.

Although there are some fairly preposterous twists and turns, it winds up being a pretty entertaining tale of politics, intrigue, and espionage, with a healthy dose of insight into what makes airplanes fly – and crash. (Which is to be expected from Serling, a noted aviation expert as well as the brother of Rod.) In the end though, both readers (of the novel) and viewers (of the movie) are left thinking that The President’s Plane is Missing is a gripping beach read, or a couple of diverting hours on television, and nothing more. A good story, in other words, but ridiculous.

Or is it?

When Governor Sanford was first discovered to be “missing,” the immediate question raised by many was what would happen if there was an emergency in South Carolina and the governor couldn’t be found. State law, apparently, requires a transfer of power from the governor to the lieutenant governor (if the governor is going to be traveling, for example) in order for the LG to exercise any executive power. Failing that, the speculation was, the state could have been up a creek if anything had happened while Sanford was incommunicado. Was he out on the Appalachian Trail, as his aides first reported? No, it turned out he was in Argentina, and – well, the rest of the story kind of goes downhill from there.

While it’s true that Sanford was incredibly incompetent in this whole situation (not to mention a real knucklehead), he also presented validation to a score of screenwriters, authors, and others who over the years have cooked up the kind of quasi-outlandish plots we saw in The President’s Plane is Missing. I mean, there are easily a half-dozen story ideas alone in this situation.

There is that natural disaster idea that so preoccupied everyone at first, that South Carolina is hit by a hurricane while the governor is out, and there’s nobody around to take charge. Sanford could have been injured or kidnapped in Argentina, with nobody knowing where he was. (Thrown in some kind of secret illness requiring medicine that he needs to live, and you’ve really got a story.) He and his mistress could have been involved in a auto accident that kills the mistress. (In that case I suppose he could place a call to Ted Kennedy for advice, but that’s a different story altogether.) Or it could have been Sanford killed or injured in the crash. (see: Fordice, Kirk.) As you can see, the possibilities are endless – and that’s without having to even touch Serling’s plot.

(As an aside, we haven’t even mentioned Fletcher Knebel’s novel Vanished (which, in 1971 was made into the very first two-part made-for-TV movie) dealing with a top presidential aide who – well, vanishes. As I recall, the plot of this story closely parallels that of Serling’s story, in that the vanished aide is actually conducting sensitive, top-secret negotiations. And perhaps that’s what Sanford should have been doing; as Jim Geraghty commented upon learning that Sanford was in Argentina, he’d better be returning with some long-lost elderly Nazi in handcuffs. But we digress.)

It is rare that one is handed such an opportunity in real life. We’re often fond of saying that art imitates life, but in reality life imitates art just as often. We should, one supposes, be grateful to Governor Sanford for providing us with the suspension of disbelief that so many of the summer blockbusters require. We can now go to the movies, watch television, and read potboiler novels without guilt, secure in the knowledge that what we’re really doing is researching how our national leaders operate.


  1. And now there could be a sequel to the first Sanford film. I weep for my state.

  2. If you are wondering about the novelist's name...that is Rod's brother. He got into writing after a stint as a commercial pilot (when he told Rod his employer, American Airlines, had a mock-up 707 interior available for any movie or TV program who wanted to use it, that was the inspiration for his TWILIGHT ZONE episode "The Odyssey of Flight 33")

    1. I remember that story about "The Odyssey of Flight 33," which is one of my favorite episodes. I wonder why I didn't mention Robert's link to Rod originally? Thanks for picking up on that!


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