MATT SANTOS FOR PRESIDENT!
Was this the most prophetic piece of television in our generation?
As I write, the contest for the next President of the United States is clearly defined. On one side is the first non-white Democratic candidate: a young, charismatic and articulate senator promising change from politics as usual. On the other side is an older white Republican: independently minded with a maverick streak of whom the religious right remains suspicious.
Welcome to series seven of TV’s The West Wing, scripted in 2005 and eerily prescient of the real life 2008 election. The fictional Democratic candidate, Hispanic Matt Santos, was based on a little known Illinois senator called Barack Obama whom the scriptwriters had already identified as a rising star.
The West Wing is a political drama set in the White House and was dreamed up during the Clinton Presidency by liberals who wanted to show what a progressive Democrat with personal discipline could actually have achieved in eight years. Although the drama started with the lives of White House staffers, taking inspiration from the celebrity status of Clinton’s whizz kids George Stephanopoulos and James Carville, the narrative focus shifted to the President because of the outstanding charisma actor Martin Sheen brought to the role.
It is striking how popular The West Wing has proved among the clergy I know. This might have something to do with the kind of ethos and environment the drama created. The White House is staffed with passionate, witty and idealistic people whose commitment to changing the world leads them into conflict with one another over strategy but not goals and who find ways of resolving these tensions while keeping enduring friendships. Welcome to the Church as we all want it to be. (Not that the clergy have much room for manoeuvre if they compare themselves to the saintly President Jed Bartlett.)
There are two dimensions to The West Wing which would never have received an airing in a British version. The first of these is the innocence surrounding these politicians and their advisers. There is a noticeable lack of cynicism in this fictional government which is a particularly American characteristic. Despite the populism and paranoia which is appealed to by so-called Washington outsiders when they run for the White House, many Americans retain an almost sacramental view of the Oval Office which in their kinder moments Hollywood writers can appeal to. It is hard to imagine a British series sanitising Downing Street in the same way and not being held up for ridicule. Some people have accused the creators of The West Wing of an insidious conservatism which misleads the public over the true nature of politicians and their processes, but its popularity is founded on escapism, not realism.
The other side to this drama which would have been squashed in Britain is its conversation about God. Martin Sheen was instrumental in making his character as President into a practising Roman Catholic, following his own personal return to faith after a hair-raising Hollywood lifestyle. He attends church, consults his priest, debates scripture, discerns faith in others and famously argues with God in a remarkable show-down in Washington National Cathedral. In contrast to Alastair Campbell’s dictum, this is a President who ‘does God’.
By the time you read this you may know whether the real Matt Santos made it to the White House. It’s no secret that the fictional one did, but not after an almighty and absorbing struggle in series seven. Catch it on DVD – especially if you feel gloomy after November 4.
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