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Our Remote-Control President

Forget David Boies, dimpled chads, and desperate litigation -- the country has already elected a new president. Just look at The West Wing's Nielsen ratings. He's a fire-breathing orator, a Nobel laureate in economics -- and he's almost as inspiring as FDR. Too bad Martin Sheen is only in office an hour a week.

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My 16-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, has recently given up Dawson's Creek for The West Wing. While you may not think this is of get-clean-for-Gene magnitude, that could be because you did not live through the grip of Dawson's Creek last year.

When we stood together the other evening at the Kennedy Center, where President Bartlet had gone to hear the Icelandic Symphony (he had, in his sharp and straightforward way, insulted the Icelandic ambassador and was now making amends), my studious but glamour-inclined daughter compared the moment, with only slightly conscious irony, to when Bill Clinton came to Washington and met John Kennedy.

Watching all of elite Washington turn out for the Kennedy Center event -- the men with trench coats over black tie, the women in gray gowns, the various Secret Service details and swarms of D.C. motorcycle cops, along with Sam Seaborn, the president's deputy director of communications, outside on a cell phone, and C. J. Cregg, the White House press secretary, checking her makeup -- I was startled to suddenly remember the time my own father had brought me to Washington. I remembered the feeling, the message: This was it; you could get no higher, do no better, achieve no more.

"Everyone have their mark?" screamed an assistant director to elite Washington, which, having exited the Kennedy Center regally once, backed up and exited regally again.

"This," I said gesturing to the actors, "reflects that" -- I indicated Washington -- "which comes to reflect this again," I said to Elizabeth by way of explaining postmodernism.

"Well, I don't care," said Elizabeth unambiguously. "This is so much better than that. A president should be like President Bartlet. People who work in the White House should be like Sam Seaborn. That's so obvious."

Harvard to Washington to Hollywood is a good career trajectory.

The intuitive thing for an age in which political entropy is so extreme that we cannot express a presidential preference would be some really evil-ish satire, a torment aimed at the bland, self-interested pasty boys who run the big show. Something MacBird-like. But, perhaps not unforeseeably, the counterintuitive prevails. The West Wing presents politics as the last (and certainly the most) honorable profession. You could not, even satirically, create a portrait more at odds with reality than The West Wing is at odds with the current political world. The daily news is a demented piece of ridicule; The West Wing is the wholesome commonweal.

Indeed, it probably doesn't matter much who -- if anyone -- becomes president in January because the real president will be Josiah Bartlet. All actions, therefore, taken in the actual White House will be confounded by the problem: How will what we do here compare to what's happening on the show, and will we come off worse? You can, with not too much difficulty, imagine The West Wing replacing national politics or offering some preferable parallel world, like a sort of benign Manchurian candidate. And there's nothing much real politicians will be able to do about it.

The other radically unintuitive thing is the idea that a show about politics could even make it onto the air -- suggesting a deepening complexity in the Hollywood-Washington relationship and, no doubt, a further dissociative condition on the part of most Americans (we've arrived at the point where we can have fantasies about politics because we've lost all pretense of being engaged in the reality).

Hollywood, of course, likes politics. Or at least it likes Democrats. Or at least it likes Bill Clinton. Hollywood and Washington may be the last enclaves to still be interested in politics. It is even a status thing in the movie business to have worked in politics. Harvard to Washington to Hollywood is a good career trajectory. But politics, as everyone in the media business knows, has not, in long memory, worked as entertainment (at least outside of the thriller category). Politics is virtually the antithesis of entertainment. Indeed, politics works less and less even as news -- at best it's a specialized interest for an older, less desirable demographic.

The idea of a television show about the White House in an hour-long drama format, which, given the vast attendant costs, needs the broadest possible audience that exists in any medium today, is, at best, unbusinesslike. That it actually got into production and on a network schedule initially seemed like some serious Hollywood-DNC-Time Warner- support-the-cause logrolling.

Or worse: This was Hollywood vulgarity. If the pinnacle of a Hollywood career was to sleep in the Lincoln Bedroom, then, by God, Hollywood would create a better, bigger Lincoln Bedroom.

No question, The West Wing's set designers produced not only an exact White House, but a substantially better one. Larger, cleaner, sharper -- in some sense realer (with better technology too; they don't hand out wafer-thin laptops in the real White House).

A cavalcade of big media, big political types, plus Chelsea Clinton, toured the set this summer during the Democratic convention, with everyone marveling at the infinitely better proportions and appointments in the Burbank White House.

Jackie Kennedy and Sister Parish had nothing on these White House designers.

So: a television show inspired by the Clinton White House, which then recruits people from the Clinton White House to work on the show, which then produces a version of life as it might have been if you could have remade not only the nature of politics but the nature of Bill Clinton, and which now has official Washington in paroxysms of self-congratulation.

To be sure, The West Wing does not in the least rise above the limitations of its genre. It's a television set piece, something entirely formulaic, earnest, goody-goody, proud of itself, overproduced. And exactly for these reasons, it may be on its way to being the most important political document of the age.


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