This well-timed anniversary issue, published just several months before the 1980 United States presidential election, deals with an obvious hypothetical: Should Captain America be president?
I actually dealt with this issue years ago when the Ultimate Universe version of Cap actually did become president in his world, but in a very different political context—there, the U.S. was fractured literally (as opposed to “merely” ideologically). In this post, however, we remain in the good ol’ 616, only briefly delving into a different parallel universe at the very end to see how things might have turned out a bit differently.
The issue opens with a terrorist invasion of a third party political convention in New York.
(Wow, the Modern Language Association sure takes failures to use their referencing system seriously!)
It isn’t long before Cap shows up, and the exposition (by Roger Stern) and glorious artwork (by John Byrne and Josef Rubinstein) reminds us of the effect he has upon entering a room, as well as his no-nonsense efficiency…
…both which are continued as he makes quick work of the terrorists and saves the lives of their hostages.
With all due respect, Mr. Stern, if that were true I’d be out of a job!
In the aftermath, Cap acknowledges the role of luck in his success at defusing the situation while he comforts one of the hostages…
…and then goes on to take a strong stance on the immorality of terrorism before he’s approached by one of the party leaders, Samuel Underwood, to whom he reaffirms his belief in America despite its imperfections.
Underwood—no relation to Frank, I hope—introduces Cap to rest of the party leadership, who are starstruck, as we would expect, and one happens upon an intriguing idea.
I don’t think we should read too much into Underwood’s party being the New Populist Party, despite the term’s heated connotations today. (For a good and brief overview, I recommend this book.) Below, he explains that it’s merely a reaction against politicians and “politics as usual” without a particular ideological agenda to replace it, other than nominating a “real leader” like Cap (despite, or perhaps because of, his lack of political experience). “Populism lite,” if you will.
Cap may have left that meeting without thinking about it too seriously, but throughout the rest of the issue he certainly does, starting with the point I made above about his lack of political experience.
His visitor turns out to be his new neighbor and friend Josh Cooper, who brings him some mail and invites him to help his newer neighbor (and soon-to-be very good friend) Bernie Rosenthal move into her apartment. After they’re done, Steve obliviously ignores Bernie’s flirtation, and the three launch into politics, with our hero admitting to some surprising civic ignorance.
The fourth speaker above is yet another neighbor, firefighter Mike Farrel, who also surprises Steve with the latest newspaper. (Note the credits on the front page.)
While Steve adjusts to the shock of Underwood’s “announcement,” we see that his presumptive bid is already raising voter participation… at least in his building. Steve himself starts to question Cap’s credentials, starting with his secret identity and lack of any policy platform, but neither criticism seems to matter to these likely voters, mired deep in the cynical political climate of
Soon, Cap gets suited up and heads to work, presumably all too aware of what he’s heading into. Apparently someone cares about his positions on the issues of the day.
At least his pals in the Avengers will want to talk about something else, right?
Oh well. As opposed to his neighbors, who were enthusiastic about the possibility of Candidate America, the Avengers give our hero a range of opinions (and Byrne and Rubinstein brilliantly give us Cap’s reaction to each). Tony, as always, is practical (and cynical); Janet echoes Steve’s neighbor Bernie in her optimism (while being a little cynical); and Vision… well, Vision’s attitude is the reason I wrote my book!
Looks like the White House is taking this seriously! (And Cap, please don’t say “I’m like Iron Man” on the stump… trust me on this.)
Next, we hear the reactions of the people on the street, ranging from nostalgia to important questions about policy to conspiracy theories—I’m sure the second guy would like to have a word or two with the first guy about the moon landing. (But what else would you expect from Herman Hermann?)
Wait, we haven’t heard from everybody yet…
…well, now maybe we have.
(In case you don’t know, years later, J.J. himself would be mayor of New York City.)
When the man of the hour gets some time alone to reflect, his thoughts turn to the dual life of Captain America and Steve Rogers that he has just managed to establish at long last, which has been a constant concern since the Avengers fished him out of the deep. But before those thoughts get a chance to sink in, he finds himself in a familiar place…
…where he remembers a lesson learned long ago.
Mrs. Crosley’s message comes in many forms, including “freedom isn’t free” and “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” but regardless of how it’s phrased, Cap takes it to heart—and gives a nod to teachers everywhere—but we still don’t know exactly he feels his duties lie.
We don’t have to wait long to find out, though, as Cap address the New Populist Party convention, which seems to picked up a little more media coverage since Underwood’s press release. (I wonder if they got the Marvel Universe version of John Byrne to draw the backdrop.)
Below, Cap explains his decision to reject the party’s nomination: He acknowledges and understands that, by its nature, politics requires compromise, but also that this is inconsistent with his responsibility to promote an ideal, the American dream. Of course, he has to make compromises himself in his pursuit and defense of that ideal, but those are the exceptions, not the main point of the job, unlike if he took a political position as the president of the United States.
I also like to think he turned down the nomination, in part, so he could continue to keep an eye on the people who did serve in government, which has led to conflict in the past—in the “Secret Empire” storyline starting in issue #169—and will again in the future—in storylines beginning in Captain America #332 and later in Civil War. (For more on all three of these storylines, and Cap’s “principle over politics” stance in general, see chapter 6 in my book.)
Cap’s thinking regarding duty over consequences is well represented by the John F. Kennedy quote (from his book Profiles in Courage) that provides narration for the final page of the issue.
But what if Cap had accepted the nomination? I said, what if…
As it happens, What If? #26, published the following year, considers the question: “What If Captain America Had Been Elected President?” (That’s Chief Justice Jack Kirby on the cover, swearing in Cap on Inauguration Day!)
As the Watcher explains below, in this alternate reality—Earth-81426, for those keeping track at home—Cap begins making the same speech as we saw above…
…but then goes in another direction, serving the ideal in a more direct way (and presumably less concerned with the necessity of political compromise).
Against the party’s wishes, Cap makes what in 1980 would have been a groundbreaking selection for his running mate, a man who himself is skeptical of Cap’s motives until he explains them, in the process admitting and making up for one of Cap’s main weaknesses as a candidate.
Unlike Captain America #250, which was probably finished before the primaries in the real world wrapped up, here we see the actual presidential candidates in 1980, each speaking to a reasonable criticism of Cap’s candidacy…
…but at the end of the (election) day, Captain America and Senator Hawk are victorious.
I won’t spoil the rest of the story—read it for yourself online or in the collected edition—but let’s just say that Earth-81426 gets its first African-American U.S. president about a quarter-century earlier that we did in the real world.
Captain America (vol. 1) #250, October 1980: Roger Stern (writer, based on an idea from Don Perlin and Roger McKensie), John Byrne (pencils), Josef Rubinstein (inks), George Roussos (colors), Jim Novak (letters). (More details at Marvel Database.)
By the way, because I showed several panels from it…
What If? (vol. 1) #26, April 1981, “What If Captain America Were Elected President?”: Mike W. Barr (writer), Herb Trimpe (pencils), Mike Esposito (inks), Carl Gafford (colors), Michael Higgins (letters). (More details at Marvel Database.)
Collected in What If? Classic: The Complete Collection, Vol. 3.
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