It's an intriguing image: a brooding President Bush — beset with his multiple woes of more than 2,000 dead GIs in Iraq, the Harriet Miers debacle, Plamegate, gas prices, polls and inflation — self-medicating his anxieties du jour by watching past seasons’ reruns of West Wing.
So claims gossip gadfly with Republican connections Cindy Adams. And this was before Scooter Libby was indicted, or Karl Rove and Dick Cheney implicated, or the White House humiliated by Democrats forcing a rare closed Senate session demanding that the GOP-led body kick into high gear its investigation into the veracity of intelligence leading up to the Iraq war. (Come to think of it, doesn’t that sound like it came straight from West Wing?)
As for Bush’s new TV-viewing habit, which used to be baseball 24/7, “I choose to believe it. We all here choose to believe it,” one of the series’ producers, Lawrence O’Donnell, tells me. “But he’s making a mistake in watching reruns when what he should be doing is watching this season’s shows.”
Leave it to Dubya to screen not only the wrong series (Fear Factor seems more his style), but the wrong year, since art is imitating life now that President Bartlet’s top staffers are suspected of leaking a national-security secret to a New York Times reporter. Still, it’s cool that we’re treated to something straight out of the third act of Nixon: presumably, a flickering TV screen in a darkened room where a swaggerless Bush slumps on the sofa in the White House private quarters, morosely munching pretzels (and trying not to trip and fall while choking on them).
The question is, What could, and should, Bush learn from West Wing?
Well, aside from the obvious (that being a crackhead paid off handsomely for West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin), the real Leader of the Free World could take away valuable lessons about dealing with terrorism effectively at home and abroad, stopping a brutal Middle East dictator without engaging the U.S. in an ill-defined and protracted war, eschewing politics to compromise with congressional opponents when it’s for the country’s good. In other words, artful solutions to Bush’s surfeit of problems.
West Wing executive producer John Wells tells me he and his writers can present to Bush “a different way that the presidency can be run.” Such as?
“We have the alternative of letting it work out well for us in dramatic terms,” Wells explains. “There was a great deal of hopeful optimism when Bush went on that aircraft carrier after the Iraq invasion and declared mission accomplished. He just wished it so, but in our world, we could have made it so. Unfortunately, in the real world, the presidency has to deal with incontrollable circumstances.”
For instance, if only W had watched a week ago, he’d have seen how a White House should treat a national-security leaker. Begun 18 months ago, the storyline wrapped up just four days before Libby’s indictment came down. “We thought Plamegate was going to go away, and we didn’t think it should,” Wells tells me. “We did time it to the real grand-jury ending. But we didn’t know it would so conveniently line up.”
In this episode, written by Peter Noah, senior adviser Toby Ziegler confesses to the crime and then offers his letter of resignation. Instead of accepting it as Bush/Cheney did Libby’s, Bartlet says: “Rip it up.”
Bartlet: “I can’t accept your resignation. I have to fire you. For cause.”
With that, Toby reaches for the door. Says Bartlet: “Toby, when you walk out of here, there’ll be people out there, perhaps a great many, who’ll think of you as a hero. I just don’t for a moment want you thinking I’ll be one of them.”
And, if he were watching the series this Sunday night, he’d get a tutorial in giving real responses on the issues, and not just repetitive slogans, when West Wing goes live.
That’s right, NBC is so desperate to register on the ratings’ Richter scale that it’s resorting once again to stunts. The network that finished fourth last year is going into November sweeps brimming with buzz kill, its schedule saturated with Law and Orders, its reality shows bottom-feeding (and Donald bitch-slapping Martha in public). Things are so bad that a stinker sitcom like My Name Is Earl may be moved to Thursday night to prop up Joey because the latter can’t even reliably beat Chris Rock’s lame sitcom, Everybody Hates Chris, on UPN, the official network of Attention Deficit Disorder. So that’s why West Wing will feature a live debate between the presidential candidates duking it out to succeed Bartlet in the Oval Office: hunky Texas Democratic Representative Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits) versus whorey California Republican Governor Arnold Vinick (Alan Alda).
After a week of lengthy conversations and rehearsals, two live versions will be telecast, one for the East Coast and another for the West Coast. But Wells expects many unscripted moments. “The guys are pretty playful. There’s quite a bit of back-and-forth.” Moderating will be TV newsman Forrest Sawyer.
And, yes, the show’s writers talked about sticking a box-shaped bulge on a candidate’s back. “Jimmy wanted to be the one having the receiver,” Wells says.
Oh, if only Bush were as articulate as Alda; most recently, our George keeps flubbing pandemic flu as “foo,” as in egg yong. If only he were as centrist. How slick of the producers to have hired Alda, the liberal in real life and onscreen (The Seduction of Joe Tynan, famously), to portray that rarity: a likable Republican. But the very idea of the GOP nominating a fiscal conservative who’s also pro-choice like Vinick is laughable. To counter Alda’s McCain, Smits is Cisneros with the sex but without the scandal.
Topics to be covered during the debate include tax cuts, drilling in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, health care, nuclear power, immigration policy and budget deficits. O’Donnell believes Dubya could learn from it. “What would become interesting for him is that there actually is an effective form of political speech once you get your spin shields ripped from you. Unlike Bush, who deals with at best half-truths and partial prescriptions, this debate will pierce the language that these people normally use.”
Will any of this make a difference for West Wing’s Nielsens? Probably not, and it’s a shame because this season the show is not just better than it’s been, but better even than it has to be. Sure, I stopped watching because of those jejune post-9/11 rants, but I came back now that Smits is a regular. “Everyone keeps saying to me, ‘It’s great this year. Everybody’s watching,’ ” sighs Wells, “but we need about twice as many everybodys.”
The show may have added one VIP viewer, but it’s limping into its seventh season, and the last year of Bartlet’s second term, having lost an audience of millions. Worse, NBC moved West Wing into the time-slot equivalent of dead air for an adult drama — 8 p.m. Sunday — when football overruns on the East Coast put the show in direct competition with ratings heavyweight 60 Minutes. Once NBC’s most reliable winner of Emmys and critical raves, West Wing now not only can’t attract viewers, but it can’t even earn kudos. Both migrated to dumbed-down Commander-in-Chief, which is ABC’s bona fide hit, even though it’s a PSA warning against bad plastic surgery and furrowed-brow overacting.
Hard to imagine Bush getting pointers on governing from a gal. On the other hand, it’s just as unbelievable for Bush to be getting pointers from the second worst-case scenario: a liberal drama that has long been beat up by whining Republicans as a big wet kiss to the Clinton White House. Ain’t life a bitch, George?
It’s too easy imagining him fast-forwarding through the episodes where everyone derides his doppelganger, Governor Robert Ritchie, who’s portrayed as Bartlet’s dumb-as-dirt GOP foe in that second-term presidential campaign and played by none other than Babs’ real-life husband, Jim Brolin. It’s more amusing to fantasize Bush savoring that snarky slam that Ritchie delivers to Bartlet in a private moment between the two very public men: “You’re what my friends call a superior sumbitch. You’re an academic elitist and a snob. You’re Hollywood, you’re weak, you’re a liberal, and you can’t be trusted, and if it appears from time to time as if I don’t like you, well, those are just a few of the many reasons why.” Wait a sec, wasn’t that W’s exact campaign stump speech in 2004?
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Finally, no one can fantasize what Bush must feel when Bartlet goes up against a fictional terrorist-sponsoring Middle Eastern state, Qumar. The West Wing prez orders the assassination of that country’s defense minister for orchestrating a botched attempt to blow up the Golden Gate Bridge. After the First Family’s daughter is kidnapped in retaliation, Bartlet relinquishes his office to the Republican speaker of the House, who then orders the bombing of terrorist camps inside Qumar. But those hostilities end without escalation as soon as Bartlet takes charge of the Oval Office again.
Seems even a fictional U.S. president isn’t stupid enough to lead his country into an avoidable war.
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