Johnathan McClain

My 5 Minutes with the President

South Carolina native Johnathan McClain stars in TV Land’s hit comedy series “Retired at 35.” At the age of 21, McClain moved to Chicago, where he wrote and began performing his critically acclaimed multiple-character one-man show, “Like It Is.” McClain continued to pursue stage acting for a number of years in New York City; his work there included appearing off-Broadway in the original cast of Jonathan Tolins’s “The Last Sunday In June” as well as at Lincoln Center Theatre. Around the country, he has been seen on stage at the American Conservatory Theatre, South Coast Repertory, Florida Stage, Paper Mill Playhouse and the National Jewish Theatre, as well as at various theaters in Los Angeles. He has also worked as a contributor to the Public Radio International series “Fair Game” and is active in the world of slam poetry.

ROBIN BRONK: If you had five minutes in the Oval Office with President Obama, what would you discuss with him?  What issue would you like him to know about?

JOHNATHAN MCCLAIN: I would want to offer the suggestion that we take a serious look at the way our political process operates. I would ask that he lead the charge to govern from a place of populism rather than a place of self-preservation. Politics pretends to be about governance, but it almost always is about the politicians, the lobbyists and individual agendas. I don’t think this is new or unique, but I would ask the president if he’d be willing to risk everything politically, if the payoff meant he could permanently alter the way the game is played, at least in America. And, by this time, I imagine my five minutes would be up and I’d be getting dragged from the building by the Secret Service.

 RB: If you could ask President Obama one question, what would that be?

JM: I like the president. I believe him to be a good and moral man. I would ask him how he’s able to balance that fundamental sense of right and wrong against some of the decisions and choices you have to make when you hold the office. To which point, I would ask him why in the world he wanted to be president in the first place. It seems like a really lousy job (and then I would get dragged from the building by the Secret Service).

RB: What piece of advice would you give President Obama as he’s on the campaign trail for the upcoming election?

JM: Don’t be afraid to stray off message. We can handle a complicated answer. Give people more credit for being smart and nuanced than we are typically given. Also, I would say if he wants to win, don’t be afraid to be a badass. People love a badass. Those who already adore you will surely vote for you, and those who hate you won’t. So, if the point of running a campaign is to persuade the rest who might not know which way they want to vote and to galvanize your base, be a badass. Defy the belief that compassion equals soft, or that compromise equals weakness. Stand up and say, “Yeah. I did this, and this is what I’ll do next, and it’s because most of the people in the country asked me to, and that’s what’s up.” Then throw down the mic and walk offstage. I’ve seen that tactic kill on HBO comedy specials; I have to believe a town-hall meeting in Des Moines is pretty much the same thing.

RB: If you were going to send the president to one of your favorite places in the United States for one day, where would that be? Why?

JM: I would have the president just sit on a bench in the Central Park Mall, which leads to the Bethesda Fountain. It’s my favorite place in the world. In the middle of one of the busiest cities on earth, there is this quiet, tree-canopied refuge where life slows down for a second and you can just watch all the people from all over the world mingle and stroll and be. I think all presidents should have time scheduled to sit and watch the citizens they’re charged with leading. Alternatively, I’d have him come to my house so when people call to ask if I want to do something I can say, “Sorry. Can’t. Chillin’ with the president.”

RB: What CD/piece of music would you recommend that President Obama add to his collection? Why?

JM: If he doesn’t already, the president should own copies of “London Calling” by the Clash, “Straight Outta Compton” by NWA, Bob Marley’s “Legend” and “It Takes a Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back” by Public Enemy — because the solution to all of life’s mysteries can be found in those albums (and “Paul’s Boutique” by the Beastie Boys, just ’cause it’s great).

RB: Would you ever consider a political career?

JM: I can’t imagine ever running for elected office because as an actor the fundamental nature of your job is to try and tell the truth while posing as someone else, whereas politics seems to me to be about obfuscating the truth while posing as a version of yourself. Feels counterintuitive.

Robin Bronk is CEO of The Creative Coalition — the leading national, nonprofit, nonpartisan public advocacy organization of the entertainment industry. Bronk is a frequent speaker on the role of the entertainment industry in public advocacy campaigns and represents The Creative Coalition and its legislative agenda before members of Congress and the White House. She produced the feature film “Poliwood,” airing on Showtime, and edited the recently published book Art & Soul. Bronk pens this weekly column with assistance from Risa Kotek.