Star Wars Best Villain Inspired By America’s Worst President

By Chris Snellgrove | Published

Star Wars is full of some very memorable villains, and characters like Darth Vader and Boba Fett seem to have sprung largely out of George Lucas’ powerful imagination. However, in a weird bit of galactic irony, it turns out the best villain the franchise has ever created was based on one of history’s most notorious figures. Emperor Palpatine was primarily inspired by President Richard M. Nixon, and the actions and controversies of this political figure shaped Palpatine in both the Original Trilogy and the Prequel Trilogy.

Emperor Palpatine Is Based On Richard Nixon

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How do we know that the ultimate Big Bad of the Star Wars franchise was inspired by Richard Nixon? In the excellent book The Making of Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, J.W. Rinzler provides an anecdote about someone asking George Lucas point-blank if the Emperor had previously been a Jedi. It made sense that a powerful Force user who effectively brought the Old Republic to an end would be someone who was once trained in the ways of the Jedi.

George Lucas Confirmed The Inspiration

To everyone’s surprise, the Star Wars guru responded by saying “No, he was a politician…Richard M. Nixon was his name.” Lucas went on to say “He subverted the senate and finally took over and became an imperial guy and he was really evil,” but most people didn’t realize this simply because “he pretended to be a really nice guy.”

Palpatine’s Political Rise

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After the Star Wars prequels came out, fans got to watch the rise of Emperor Palpatine happen across three films. It played out exactly as Lucas had described, with Palpatine running various background schemes that left the Senate and most of the galaxy still thinking he was a great guy. The Emperor never had any public controversies akin to Watergate, so unlike Richard Nixon, there was nothing to slow down his tyrannical rise to power.

The Difference Is Nixon Failed

Before that president’s fall from grace, however, his political machinations ended up fueling much of the early story notes that would later become the Star Wars Prequel Trilogy. Lucas would later tell the Chicago Tribune that when Nixon was gearing up to run for a second term, the sci-fi auteur began to think long and hard about how “democracies get turned into dictatorships.” The way Lucas saw things, “democracies aren’t overthrown; they’re given away.”

From Republic To Empire

That particular political revelation is made manifest, of course, in Revenge of the Sith. As the Star Wars prequels came to a close, we saw that Palpatine had manipulated everything so perfectly (including his injuries from battling Mace Windu) to get the Senate to agree to his plans to create an everlasting Galactic Empire with himself at its head. Into the general cheers, Padme Amidala expresses the same thoughts that a young Lucas once had about Nixon: “So this is how liberty dies…with thunderous applause.” 

The Prequels Were Not A Shot At George W. Bush

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Speaking of the Star Wars prequels, one of the ironic things that George Lucas has spoken about before is the fact that many people thought the rise of Palpatine and the Empire was meant to serve as a criticism of George W. Bush and his presidential administration. As both Lucas and producer, Rick McCallum are quick to point out, however, the basic plot of Palpatine’s rise to power was sketched out decades before Bush even ran for president. But the real presidential inspiration behind Palpatine’s characterization and political manipulation has secretly always been disgraced president Richard M. Nixon.

Palpatine Wins

In Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, Spock famously claims that “only Nixon could go to China” is an old Vulcan proverb. For the people of his home planet of Naboo, it seems the Star Wars equivalent will forever be “only Palpatine could go to Coruscant.”

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