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Our Remote-Control President


It is not just for drama's sake that in Sorkin's version Gore is winning, and emerging heroically. In addition to being a Hollywood version of reality, The West Wing is a Hollywood Democrat's version of reality.

The West Wing is, with no apologies, liberal, relativist, left-leaning (although Peggy Noonan and Marlin Fitzwater are consultants, as are Dee Dee Myers and Pat Caddell). An issue recently was whether Mao ought to be quoted by President Bartlet. If real politics is necessarily always tethered to small town-ish Babbittry, this is the flip side: a White House of Eastern, liberal Jews (and a New England Catholic president), where the president's daughter dates (has sex with) the president's black aide. The West Wing defines the cultural difference between the Democratic blue states and the Republican red states -- between a desirable media demographic and an undesirable one ("This guy sells dental supplies in the Twin Cities -- how enlightened do you think he'll be?" asks Sam Seaborn -- nailing the Democratic idea of the Republican half of the nation).

The fact that the viewing audience doesn't seem bothered by the bias might suggest what most of pop culture suggests: People are a lot more liberal than they vote.

Or, following the Reagan historical model, wherein the character issue is so much better handled by actors than by politicians, of course even Republican voters would have no problem with Martin Sheen as their president. The West Wing extends the Reagan model -- not just an actor changing careers and becoming president, but an actor who just plays the president becoming as potent a symbol as the actual president.

Sheen has been preparing for this role longer than most politicians prepare for the presidency. In The American President, the Sorkin-written precursor, Sheen played the chief of staff to Michael Douglas's president. Then, too, he's played both Kennedy brothers (connoisseurs of Kennedy mini-series debate whether Sheen was a better John or Bobby), not to mention playing John Dean in Blind Ambition. (Many West Wing actors have former political roles -- C. J., or Alison Janney, played the teacher who was the Clinton-Travolta-Jack Stanton opening quickie in Primary Colors.)

Harvard to Washington to Hollywood is a good career trajectory.

In real life, Sheen is, eccentrically, not a limousine-liberal Hollywood Democrat. He is a radical Catholic. He was an apostate who returned to the Church, with Daniel Berrigan, the oft-imprisoned priest, as his role model. He gave the $200,000 he earned for his role in Gandhi to Mother Teresa. He himself is regularly arrested in the service of righteous causes. For his opening line on The West Wing, he walks into a dispute with the religious right and quotes the First Commandment: I am the Lord, your God, thou shalt worship no other gods before me . . .

He is, forcefully, not Clinton.

Possibly he is a version of Bobby Kennedy -- some imagined, older Bobby. He is Roosevelt-like too. Or the twinkling eyes are. What's more, his President Bartlet suffers from multiple sclerosis, which the country, to be distinguished from the audience, does not know about. Like Roosevelt's polio.

Sheen converts all of the usual pitfalls, the sentiment, the sanctimony, the earnestness, even the overly windy dialogue of political dramas, all of which are present here, into some effective and compelling and pure type of liberal social realism. This is a picture of politics as how it should be. Here is a president as decent, as human, as robust, as any farmer or steelworker in the thirties.

Certainly, it has been many years since a president has been played as anything other than a falling-down loon or a craven maniac, much less as a father, husband, professor, Nobel Prize winner (in economics), larger-than-life philosopher-king, as well as, occasionally, angry man ("I am going to blow them off of the face of the earth with the fury of God's own thunder," he says about some terrorist group that has downed a plane carrying his personal physician).

What we have is the complete absence of irony and cynicism. President Bartlet is fully idealized. And yet it is an oddly, or beguilingly, credible portrait. We seem to want it to be, anyway.

While President Bartlet is the opposite of Clinton, he probably could not have existed without Clinton. Through Clinton we got the first glimpse in the modern age of the real White House, with recognizable and identifiable people working there -- in addition to having unseemly office romances there. Imagine trying to idealize the already overly idealized Reagan years -- propagandizing the propaganda. You needed a real White House to build your fantasy on. You needed a flawed man to redeem. You needed an act to clean up.

Next to Clinton, it is the spirit of George Stephanopoulos that hovers here. Stephanopoulos created the archetype of a senior staffer with top-flight mass-media appeal. Before Stephanopoulos, political operatives were specialized figures, at best character actors -- too regional, too rarefied, too rough, too cynical. Peggy Noonan, Marlin Fitzwater, Lyn Nofziger, Sidney Blumenthal, James Carville, and Dick Morris are too much their own caricatures (the one over-the-top killer political-op character in the show, Mandy, based loosely on Mandy Grunwald, was dropped after the first season). In Stephanopoulos, you had a young, upwardly mobile everyman in the White House.

When Sorkin went to the White House to do his research for The American President, he spent fifteen minutes talking to Stephanopoulos "in this small office where he's eating food off a tray," and found that they're the same age and, to his surprise, that they have friends in common -- the writers David Handelman and Eric Alterman, whom Sorkin knows from Scarsdale High. "We're talking there just like we might be talking in my college dorm room."

There you have it. It's a yuppie thing, which is the necessary background for all workplace dramas -- upward mobility and professional achievement provide the underlying tension. It's yuppie social realism, zooming in on, and resolving, the quintessential yuppie (as well as American) conflict: How do we get what we want, when we want it, while still seeing ourselves as the last best hope for man?

These are attractive young people. Young (Sam Seaborn is only eight years out of law school -- Dewey Ballantine to the White House). Well educated (casual in their snobbery about their educations). Hip. Funny. Jeans and old sweaters in the White House. Fast on their feet. As well as virtuous (independent men with more than self-interest at heart, taking control of the government).

For the first time in several generations, politics becomes aspirational.

Plus, they banter. The art of banter, which is both a workplace and television writer's art, the true insider's patois (there's a special rhythm to the banter in the show, a staccato syllabification), may be at the heart of The West Wing's success. For a generation now, the coolest banter was movie banter. But the thing with banter is it's probably not the place so much, or the job, but the talk itself, the lingo, that is compelling.

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