A few years ago I stopped watching The West Wing. In part, it was due to the erratic scheduling practices of Channel Nine, but since I recently followed Surface from Thursday at 7.30pm to a Saturday at 6.30pm, before it spent its last weeks being screened at midnight on Friday, I have to concede it was more than a programming issue that saw me abandon the show. The problem was that the second Gulf War broke out. Suddenly a chasm opened up between the educated, liberal President Bartlett, played by Martin Sheen, and the real-life incumbent, George W. Bush. While I admired Jed Bartlett as he turned to the Classics, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Payne for lessons in democratic and ethical leadership, I could not ignore the fact of George W’s ascension to power through nepotism and questionable election outcomes. I felt manipulated into admiring the office of the President of the USA at the very time it was sanctioning a war fabricated to serve its own interests, so I stopped watching.
Now The West Wing is screening on the ABC, I’ve started watching it again. In part, this is due to the more stable programming practices of the public broadcaster; and no ads is always a bonus. Even as I watched the first episode the ABC screened, however, I felt drawn into the soul stirring speeches written by Rob Lowe’s character and, again, I resented the sense of being cynically manoeuvred into cheering on the world’s super power. I guess I’m in a quandary because, considered separately from any contemporary political context, The West Wing is ‘good television’. It has great acting and smart dialogue that commands your attention. But I wonder if, in spite of its representation of a liberal President, it hasn’t been one of the best purveyors of the conviction that the United States of America is a ‘natural’ world power.
Another television drama that showcases the office of the President of the United States is Commander In Chief. I’ve made a point of watching this programme since it began here three weeks ago. I’ve always liked Geena Davis, and was looking forward to seeing her in a role that seems made for her Amazon-like presence. Then there’s Kyle Secor who plays the ‘first gentleman’ to Davis’s President. He was in one of the best programmes on television, ever, Homicide: Life On The Streets and, again, I’ve been wanting to see him in something to match his earlier work. Further reason to watch Commander In Chief is Donald Sutherland. What a despicable character he plays, and to absolute perfection, as the Speaker of the House who spends all of his time plotting to undermine his President’s authority. I will never forget seeing Sutherland in Bernardo Bertolucci’s epic film Novecento (1900); he played the most brutal, shocking character, one of Mussolini’s Black Shirts, that I have ever seen on film.
While I think Commander In Chief has some of the elements of ‘good’ television, my position towards it is similar to the one I take to The West Wing. I feel manipulated. Who, aside from a misogynist, wouldn’t cheer at the sight of a woman in the White House? For all the maligning of Muslim attitudes towards women, Indonesia and Pakistan are way ahead of the US and Australia on the ‘female leader’ scorecard. When Davis’s President threatened military action to negotiate the release of a woman in Nigeria who had been sentenced to death for adultery, I did my very own Mexican wave. And who could not be impressed by the feat of wresting power from a corrupt General in a fictitious South American country? In that instance, the President managed to avenge the assassination of seven DEA officers and restore a democratically elected President in one fell swoop—all without any further loss of life. I’m sure George W. wishes that setting the military on another country’s resident dictator could be such a tidy affair. At the end of the day, he could settle back on a couch in the White House, his wife and child sleeping at the other end, the seal of the President of the USA woven into the carpet beneath his feet, and rest assured that American might was keeping the world in check.
I suppose what I wish is that Americans would actually bother to elect a thoughtful and learned President. Instead of bitching about their democratic right not to vote, and damning us all with the consequences of their complacency, I’d like Americans to consider the responsibility they have when they go to the polls, not just to their own country, but to the people of the so-called ‘free world’, over which their President asserts himself as leader. Failing that, I’d like to be able to vote in the next US election, so I too could have a say about the future of the free-world I inhabit.