COMMANDER-IN-CHIEF: ON FICTIONAL POLITICIANS AND THEIR REAL-WORLD EFFECTS

The difference between Aaron Sorkin and Jon Favreau (not the actor) is, in a way, slight. As speechwriters, both tend toward chiasmic turns of phrase, momentum-gathering lists of hopeful things that come in pairs and sudden injections of personal anecdotes into lengthy policy proposals.


Both men bandy about the word “hope”; both men’s penchant for parallel structure is, well, unparalleled. But while Sorkin created and wrote hyper-witty political dramas such as NBC’s The West Wing and the Rob Reiner-directed The American President, Favreau has been head speechwriter for Barack Obama since the points he made for John Kerry’s campaign became moot in 2004. That is, the former deals in fictional characters, the latter in actual candidates.
Such a distinction, however, made by pundits and partisans of American politics–that Obama is a real candidate and Sorkin’s creations are not–is less exact, less definitive, less convincing on another level: in the minds of the American public. The fictional alternate realities created by political dramatists like Sorkin draw in and deeply affect viewers who are, at the same time, voters.

The wind beneath West Wing

Eight years ago, during America’s last incumbent-less presidential campaign, The West Wing was starting a run of immense popularity and critical acclaim. The show won a record-breaking number of Emmys for its 1999-2000 season, including Best Drama–an impressive achievement when considering its patchwork lineage.
Sorkin’s The American President featured Michael Douglas as well-intentioned left-centrist President Shepard. In a climax showcasing Sorkin’s speechwriting flourish, President Shepard makes a tough call look morally justified, a choice influenced by his chief of staff–played by one Martin Sheen. And Sorkin had already penned two seasons of Sports Night, which either inspired or irritated viewers by taking its own smarmy banter incredibly (arguably, far too) seriously.
The West Wing played on the successes of these two predecessors. The American President’s cutting room floor featured President Shepard’s left-leaning, hard-working senior staff at work, and Sorkin translated these secondary storylines to television by using many of the characters and basic plots sketched out by Sports Night’s ensemble cast. Sheen was promoted from Chief of Staff to President Josiah Bartlet. The show was to have the smart teleplay of Sports Night in the framework of the feel-good politics (if you were a Democrat, that is) of The American President. Content and context to befit one another.
This was during the end of the Clinton administration, at the tail end of the Lewinsky scandal. Morals, personality and family values rose to the top of the nation’s concerns, and Bill Clinton’s charm was no longer enough. In the thick of the 2000 presidential race, NBC began running an ad campaign for The West Wing that announced that the show featured “a president we can all agree on.” As essayist Chris Lehmann explained in a 2001 issue of The Atlantic, “Bartlet [is] a two-dimensional glyph of implausible virtue. He is charismatic and quietly omnicompetent, √† la Bill Clinton, but viewers are forcefully reminded that he does not share Clinton’s (or John F. Kennedy’s) priapic weaknesses.”
A passionate apathy, an active passivism
For millions of West Wing fans–myself included–to inhabit the world of Bartlet’s White House was to live in a kind of dream America: one of hope and progress, where one could believe in a Commander in Chief who was decisive but thoughtful, who drew from a copious knowledge of Latin, world history and economics. His flaws were forgivable: he lied about a degenerative illness (multiple sclerosis), but it was not fatal and not debilitative. He smoked a cigarette when times got tough, but rarely and somehow meaningfully.
In August of 2000, CNN ran a poll connected to an article about how West Wing fans would vote in the November election. Thirty-two percent of the 9,000 respondents said they would punch in chads for President Bartlet, 27 for Gore, 25 for Bush. There was only one problem: voting for Bartlet would have been tantamount to writing in for Mickey Mouse; he was a character, not a candidate.
But the vote nevertheless expressed a political affinity and opinion. So palpably felt was the desire for Sheen’s character to be the real president–so strongly did viewers wish to color in 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue with a creation from Sorkin’s pen–that citizens who believed in this fictional President were more inclined to back him in a hypothetical campaign than translate their empathies to a corporeal counterpart.
The problem for liberal fans of The West Wing was most evident in the 2000 campaign. As Laura Lippman outlined in a New York Times essay from December of that year, the show “makes a counterproductive pact with its almost 20 million viewers: stay home, surrender to this fantasy of a Democratic president who never abandons his principles and skip the real thing.” Lippman’s point stems from the same logic as Lehmann’s: that Bartlet, as a fictional character, is a hodgepodge of ideal qualities unattainable by real Democratic candidates, a creation born from our deepest desires to which no reality–certainly not Gore then or Kerry in 2004–could come close in comparison.
Beyond the candidate comparisons, the effect of The West Wing fanaticism runs deep into the political psyche. From the comfort of your own home, you could watch these staffers actually alter the course of the world. The scope was so large–and the successes or failures so monumental when coming from the White House–that instead of calling viewers to action on the issues, the show often generated a sort of lazy activism. You need not go fight for these issues; watch the next episode, in which they resolve them. From The West Wing, one former fanatic told the Independent, comes a kind of “political hormone replacement.”
Not that the actors haven’t continually tried to connect the fictional world of The West Wing to the real elections American voters face. Earlier this month, as Sheen campaigned with Bill Richardson in Iowa, Robert Schiff (Communications Director Ziegler) stumped for Joe Biden. Bradley Whitford (Debuty Chief of Staff Josh Lyman) has recorded videos and written for liberal site No More Dirty Tricks. The mixed success of these candidates highlights the trouble with translating The West Wing’s principled interplay into any kind of realpolitik.
Searching for Bauer’s fiction
The television politics of today, though less dominated by The West Wing, are still ideologically central. In a May 2007 debate among Republican presidential candidates at the University of South Carolina, the name Jack Bauer was on the lips of more than one White House hopeful. Bauer, Kiefer Sutherland’s terrorist-hunter on 24, is constantly under fire in the series for using torture to get answers from a terrorist–in order, as is his raison d’etre, to save America and the rest of the free world.
When asked how he would interrogate terror suspects, Colorado Representative Tom Tancredo answered decisively: “I’m looking for Jack Bauer at that time, let me tell you,” more than insinuating that his modus operandi would be less Bartlet than Rambo.
A super-Realist in a fictional world, Bauer provides a helpful ally for candidates looking for the resolute man-of-action image cultivated and employed by the Bush administration. Though only Tancredo mentioned the character by name, other debaters capitalized on the kind of rhetoric fans of 24 would recognize.
On a watchdog blog run by the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University, Mary Curtis worried about 24′s effect on political discourse. She reported that a delegation, which included the dean of the US Military Academy as well as FBI interrogators, asked 24′s producers to stop its “glamorous torture tableaux” as they left them with “the training of American soldiers who want to be just like him.”
Democrats, too, have been called on to respond to the world portrayed by 24. In an October 2007 Meet the Press appearance, former President Bill Clinton said he would authorize torture if a situation like those seen on 24 presented itself. Later, he all but repealed his comment, saying that “a policy which legitimizes this, it’s a slippery slope and you get in the kind of trouble we’ve been in here with Abu Ghraib, with Guantanamo.” Senator Hillary Clinton disagreed with her husband’s initial Bauer-approval, arguing that the United States must not allow torture under any circumstances.
In the land of the Real, the television is President
For politicians and public figures like the Clintons, debating the merits of fictional characters and situations seems a matter of illuminating fact with fiction. 24 provides hypothetical situations against which decisions that might actually occur may be examined. Fiction, as we’re so often told, could help us to understand better the lives we live and the choices we make.
But the direction of these connecting lines refracts in the television’s glare; art that imitates political life is not just dependent on real world politics. Rather, as politicians like Tancredo and the Clintons bring television characters into political discourse–when we pretend that Jack Bauer and Jed Bartlet exist in worlds operating on the same logic as our own–the metaphor of fiction as an external mirror breaks down. American viewers and voters not only recognize how characters are inspired by real politicians, but also look for real politicians to become more like those characters. Or, as with many West Wing fans, we begin to abandon hope of that chance.
That televised worlds visualize possibilities beyond what is likely to happen tomorrow allows us to imagine and hope, as well as fear and react. But we can’t pretend our reactions and television allegiances are without consequence. Some of our beliefs and votes may be based on Washington executives and others on Hollywood’s portrayal of them, and from the vantage point of couches across America, a separation in spirit isn’t quite so simple.

Post hoc, ergo propter HENRY DANIEL FREEDLAND B’08.

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