This week marks the 20th anniversary of Star Trek: The Next Generation, which charted the adventures of the U.S.S. Enterprise a century after Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock. The Emmy-winning TV series, created under the supervision of Trek mastermind Gene Roddenberry and syndicated on numerous cable channels today, lasted from 1987 to 1994 and served as the launching pad for four feature films. In addition to vastly improved special effects, TNG surpassed the original series' hokey '60s politics (such as the episode in which a race of half-white/half-black aliens loathe a race of half-black/half-white aliens -- get it?) with a nuanced political worldview that often explored the tactical necessity of choosing the lesser of two evils, the proper time for diplomacy to devolve into warfare, and other unpleasant shades of gray. (Does sex with an android count as emotional lovemaking or futuristic masturbation?)
At the moral center of these realist quandaries was Captain Jean-Luc Picard, whom Patrick Stewart played with Shakespearean gravitas (and without the use of William Shatner's signature toupee). The French-born, tea-drinking Picard, who popularized the catch phrase "make it so," was far more of a refined interstellar emissary than a testosterone-oozing brawler -- the Tony Blair to George W. Bush's Kirk, or more fittingly his Zapp Brannigan -- but was hardly a pacifist in an emergency. Indeed, Picard was a literate, contemplative and judicious leader, the exact opposite of what America has had so far in the Twenty-First Century.
A handful of satirical Facebook groups nominate Picard for the highest office in the land. One such group declares, "In these trying times, the resolute leadership of Jean-Luc Picard and the masculine facial hair of [first officer] William T. Riker are just what this country needs." While these groups are farcical in nature, they raise a valid point: the fictional Picard is a greater captain -- and better man -- than the president of the United States of America for a number of reasons:
Diplomacy: Bush invaded Iraq as soon as the reactionary political atmosphere proved conducive; he did not take the time to plan strategies for occupation or exit. However, Picard has a far more cautious approach to foreign policy and greater skepticism of nation-building. "History has proved again and again that whenever mankind interferes with a less developed civilization, no matter how well-intentioned that interference may be, the results are invariably disastrous," Picard says in the TNG episode "Symbiosis." Picard criticized "cowboy diplomacy" by name in "Unification," supposedly the first modern usage of this disparaging phrase. Instead of losing his temper and acting brashly, Picard follows the United Federation of Planets' Prime Directive of nonintervention unless a hostile situation has no possible peaceful outcome, in which case he would respond swiftly and ruthlessly, emulating Colin Powell far more than any neoconservative. According to Lieutenant Commander Data, a human-like android, Picard has an 83 percent likelihood of action when faced with such emergencies. He might not qualify as a battle-hungry Klingon but he certainly isn't a Kucinich voter either.
Freedom and the Rule of Law: In the wake of 9/11 the Bush Administration detained U.S. citizens indefinitely without charges, eavesdropped on citizens' conversations without warrants, spied on domestic antiwar groups and otherwise subverted the most hallowed tents of the U.S. Constitution. Picard has infinitely more respect for the pillars of Western Civilization. In the TNG episode "The Drumhead," an alien security breach on the Enterprise unleashes a wave of xenophobia and demands for security crackdowns but Picard has none of it, cautioning that "the path between legitimate suspicion and rampant paranoia is very much shorter than we think." He proclaims, "The first speech censored, the first thought forbidden, the first freedom denied, chains us all irrevocably." In the episode "Chain of Command," a sadistic Cardassian captures and tortures Picard, stripping and beating him for hours of interrogations; after being driven to the brink of sanity by such barbarism, it's unlikely that Picard would ever allow the same treatment of prisoners in his custody. (Stewart watched recovered interrogation tapes from Amnesty International before performing the disturbing nude scene -- disturbing for its content as well as the mental image of a nude Patrick Stewart.) It's a sad statement that a fictional space-faring atheistic Frenchman in the Twenty-Fourth Century defends the Bill of Rights more vigorously than the man who has sworn upon the Bible to do so.
Equality: While Bush tried to insert a federal anti-gay marriage amendment into the Constitution and has identified homosexuals as threats to American families, Picard is far more open-minded when it comes to changing definitions of identity. In the episode "A Measure of a Man," a Starfleet cyberneticist orders the dismantling of Data for scientific study; Picard protests this decision but the cyberneticist claims that Data is the property of Starfleet, not a sentient autonomous being. However, in a legal showdown Picard dismantles the cyberneticist's arguments for Data's inferiority one by one. "Are we prepared to condemn him, and all who come after him, to servitude and slavery?" Picard asks. "Your Honor, Starfleet was founded to seek out new life... there it sits." There is no way to know exactly how Bush would feel about human-android marriage, of course, but it's not difficult to guess. (On the other hand, it would allow closeted self-hating homosexual Republican congressmen to experience lifelike anal sex without technically going to hell.)
Humility: For all of his bravado and back-patting, Bush lacks the self-analysis to alter his decisions when they clash with reality. His stubbornness makes him doctrinaire, insulated and unable to change course. Unlike Bush, Picard shed his delusions of infallibility when he was a young man; after graduating from Starfleet Academy Picard started a brawl that ended with him getting stabbed through the heart and subsequently realizing that he "was no hero, but an undisciplined, opinionated, loud-mouthed young man who was far out of his league; that was a great and painful lesson, and I learned it well." Over time Picard discovered that despite his best hopes and efforts, sometimes a quagmire is a quagmire and there is no reason to die for a hopeless cause: "It is possible to commit no error and still lose, Data. That is not a flaw, just life." In the blockbuster film First Contact, Picard becomes obsessed with revenge after his abduction at the hands of the Borg ("I will make them pay for what they have done!"), but recalls the fate of Captain Ahab and decides on a more rational, tactical approach -- as opposed to a suicidal frenzy of blind rage -- which ultimately ends with the death of the Borg Queen, surely a greater threat to humanity than the pissant Osama bin Laden.
Picard even has the wisdom to perceive that "[v]illains who twirl their mustaches are easy to spot; those who clothe themselves in good deeds are well camouflaged." According to StarTrek.com, Picard is also obsessed with science -- anathema to modern Republicans -- and "has no interest in politics." Indeed, Picard is a superior leader to Bush in every conceivable way aside from being imaginary. Unfortunately the future looks bleak for Picard and the rest of the TNG crew: their last movie, Nemesis, fizzled at the box office; major cast members have refused to reprise their roles; and Lost creator J.J. Abrams is signed to direct a film that returns Trek to the Kirk and Spock era. (Leonard Nimoy will once again play the iconic Vulcan; Shatner is reportedly holding out for more cash, as if this should surprise anyone.)
But perhaps in some alternate dimension -- some transmutation of the time-space continuum, some faraway corner past the Gate of Forever, someplace that isn't Facebook -- Captain Jean-Luc Picard could be elected to lead the free world. If this mirror universe exists, its inhabitants should not hesitate to make it so.