Monday, May 15, 2006

The End of an Era

So, I guess they couldn’t afford to pay Glen Close to do the final episode.

Seven years. I have been watching The West Wing for seven years. Without exception, I have watched every episode within 24 hours of its original airing. Sad, really. But quite admirable considering that for the past two years I haven’t had cable.

In 2000, I wrote a letter to Senator John McCain (R- Arizona) asking him how the existence of the West Wing was possibly consistent with the McCain-Feingold (D-Winconsin) legislation on campaign finance reform, as it was obviously an hour-long infomercial for the Democrats. The reply letter, obviously auto-penned by a clever staffer, was “we understand and recognize your worry, but I am not concerned as the freedom of speech allows Hollywood Democrats to pretend they still hold the White House.”

President Bartlett was really the opposite of what I would love to see in a President. He was a socially conservative free spending liberal democrat. But, he isn’t real. Clinton (D- Arkansas, New York) was a social liberal who, with the benefit of history and with the help of Newt Gingrich (R-Georgia), ran the most fiscally responsible executive branch since the revolution. A libertarian’s dream.

So, how far can an imaginative mind take the parallels between The West Wing and the real world? Here goes- a virtually unknown, albeit popular, Democrat Governor of a small state finishes third in the New Hampshire primary to ultimately overcome a popular large state Senator. After winning the primary, he defeats a struggling incumbent President with a defeated adversary as his running mate. It is discovered that he lied to the people and is censured by Congress. In the landslide mid-term, he wins re-election in part because of his ability to unite the people behind an unspeakable trust they have in him despite the questions about his honesty. His record of dealing with an adverse Congress is not stellar, and he subsequently closes down the government rather then cut programs he cherishes during a budget showdown. The race to succeed him features an election that is the closest in history.

But, he isn’t so different from Bush (R- Mobil) either. He sent large scale US forces into two different conflicts while members of his senior staff are indicted for betraying state secrets. He was also the sitting President during 9/11. Sadly, many people actually believed that.

Ok, seriously- before this turns into an ABC (another bad conspiracy ™) we have to admit that The West Wing did a lot to push the dialogue. K-Streeters spent more time in Los Angeles lobbying to have their issues appear on the show, then they did talking to decision makers in Washington.

In 2001-3, despite being ranked outside the top twenty in the Neilson ratings, the advertising minutes for The West Wing was worth more than every other event except the first half of the Superbowl. Why? Demographics- the people who watched The West Wing made more than the idiots who watch Friends. Unfortunately for those of us in Canada, it wasn’t until this year that we were able to see them. I have said it once, I hate the CRTC.

The West Wing was the epitome of a question I ask most of my politically astute friends- when looking at fiction, when does history end and fiction begin? Or, put into Frank Fukuyama’s (R-Academia) terms- when is the end of history? As best as I can tell, the most recent reference to a real person was found in the very first episode, referring to the dictator of Libya by his actual name, regardless of its correct spelling. I admit that Donna subsequently referred to Matt Perry as cute only to have him return later as a staff lawyer in the white house on whom she had a little crush. Sadly, Friends does not make for good history.

The West Wing wasn’t set so far into the future that it could ignore major events like perestroika, free trade and September 11. The secret to slipping through real history is to acknowledge the events, but not the players who were so pivotal in achieving them. The West Wing, like many other fictional stories about real life institutions, has characters that are…very similar. Be that a dim-witted Southern Governor seeking higher office or a senile leader of the Palestinian authority.

It is funny that Martin Sheen was Bartlett, as he was arrested twice while he was the fake president for his raucus behaviour at protests. Apparently, he once boasted drunkenly that he could “play” Bartlett and win election. Oy. But, he was probably right.

Why do I love Bartlett so? Well, it if it wasn’t obvious to the average viewer, he was a caricature of all the things the sitting President was not. Academically gifted, smooth, articulate- all things that I believe should be constitutional prerequisites along with “born in the USA, 14 year resident and over the age 35.” Seriously, I loved Bartlett because he was John Galt. I hope they put him on Rushmore.


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