Author and professor Dr. John Bednar first began writing his political thriller The People's President in the early 70s. His book–written in the scandalous milieu of Watergate and the Vietnam War–posed a fictional and righteous reality in which politics and money did not mix. Bednar's writing was a understated form of protest, a caution against the burgeoning Washington swamp and what he perceived as a gross miscarriage of a democratic electoral system. His book was first circulated among his colleagues and students and was received well; Bednar's ideas resonated with his readers and laid dormant, marinating, for decades to come.
By the time his 50th Princeton University reunion rolled around, the 2016 election was on the horizon and Bednar's former classmates recalled the alternate reality he penned all those years ago. Once again, Bednar took his protest to the page; he updated and released a second edition of The People's President: In the Nation's Service, modernizing the backdrop but keeping the story the same. His protagonist, Professor George Franklin (modeled off Bednar himself) is a new kind of politician, one driven not by money but in the service of the common man. In an interview with the The Swamp, John Bednar discussed his debut novel and cemented his belief in civic duty, our individual responsibility for the state of our democracy and his ultimate optimism in the American people.
The Swamp: Without spoilers, what is The People’s President about?
John C. Bednar: Money in politics and individual civic responsibility in democracy.
What was the political climate like when you first came up with the subject of the book?
I was teaching at Berkeley (1974). The Vietnam War was at its climax. It was a turbulent time… a time when lots of doubt and confrontation filled the air. And already I was disturbed by the need for so much money in politics and wondering how all of the civic energy being displayed could be channeled into a positive direction. I published a first version of the book in 1981. In that version the protagonist is a young professor of French at Berkeley…. yes, I dared to elect a greatly enhanced image of myself as President (one of the beautiful possibilities of fiction). The book was sold to a number of my classmates at Princeton and at our 50th reunion two years ago many of them encouraged me to update the book and get it back on the market, given the emerging candidacy of Trump. The current edition is the result and the protagonist is no longer me.
If you could choose any non-political figure to run for office like your protagonist Dr. George Franklin did, whom would you choose?
No one jumps out in my mind. My feeling is that there are thousands of them out there, people who are natural born civic leaders who would never think of running for President or even for other political offices down the line because of the way that money dominates the process.
Your book was released before Trump was elected President: is there anything you’d change about your plot had this been the case as you were writing it?
Not really. I was hoping that the book’s release would come sooner than it did because of all the hype surrounding Trump, but in retrospect I think my story has a message that will last much longer than the “Trump era.” In fact, I think that the oligarchical tendencies in play today will encourage people to search other paths… and that maybe some of them will find answers in The People’s President: In the Nation’s Service.
Could a campaign with no money spent ever happen in real life? How?
Sure! Look at the ways in which huge numbers of people can communicate with each other today through modern technology. The cost is minimal.
Who, if any, has been a “People’s President” in American history, or the closest to it?
The evolution of our two-party system has not opened that door, alas, even if we have seen waves of unexpected popular support. No one stands out in my mind. Perhaps the day will come when a candidate looks at the camera like George Franklin does and says: “I don’t want you to vote for me… unless YOU are willing to be a better citizen.”
Are any countries doing elections ‘right’?
Maybe not ‘right', but some do a better job than us on the money side and have much shorter campaign periods. France comes to mind, though the tendency there has been towards a more American model.
What steps could citizens take to move our election process, and our political world, in the right direction?
Bringing the oligarchical beast down a notch (or rather, lots of notches) is at one and the same time a monumental yet simple task. Letting corporate money inundate the political world could be stopped in a New York minute. The Press in general could choose to play a much more civic role in politics by (based on a rational set of criteria) providing completely free time to candidates. And citizens in general could collectively decide to be better citizens, like the book suggests. The pool of strong civic leaders out there is much larger than most people think, leaders who would not choose to enrich themselves with public money and who would voluntarily serve for a limited period of time, if given the chance.
The People's President: In the Nation's Service by John C. Bednar
Should there be a limit to what politicians share on social media?
When I was teaching at Berkeley, I once wrote on the board the following sentence: “Freedom is directly proportionate to people’s ability to impose limits on themselves.” It still sticks in my mind as one of the most interesting class discussions I ever had with my students. Dictating doesn’t work.
What’s your favorite fictional political movie? TV show? Book?
Dr. Strangelove. Madam Secretary. Plato’s Republic.