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I've often wondered who gets the most pissed at watching fictional depictions of their profession. For example, in almost every medical drama that has ever been filmed, at some point a patient's heart rate monitor (ECG) will flatline (a.k.a. a heart going into Asystole) & the Doctors will reach for paddles to shock said flatline, since according to long-standing Hollywood medical procedure a heart is like a car battery that can be jump-started. Beep... Beep… Beep… Beep… Beep… Beeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee... CLEAR!… KA-CHUNK!!!!!!!… Beep… Beep… Beep… Beep… Beep. Of course, this is totally wrong, since shocking someone with a defibrillator can only help stop a dysfunctional rhythm. It can't start a normal sinus rhythm where there isn't one.

However, those same medical dramas, that can get so much wrong, have also inspired countless people to pursue careers in medicine as well. And similar things can be said for the lawyer shows that screw up legal procedure, and the various science-fiction franchises that sometimes play fast & loose with the science part.

So what can be said about the depiction of politics in media? Recently, there was a post at ThinkProgress which argued President Bartlet of "The West Wing" was a mediocre (fictional) President. But over at Vanity Fair, contributor Juli Weiner has authored a piece in which she argues Aaron Sorkin's "The West Wing" has been influential in shaping the current generation of public servants. Is she right?

Both "The West Wing," and its spiritual predecessor 'The American President,' proceed from an idealistic, Capraesque vision of American politics that believes in the positive aspects of government and more importantly the positive aspects of people in government.

From Vanity Fair:

President Obama is often credited with inspiring political idealism in young people (at least until the campaign ended and actual governing began). But before Obama there was Aaron Sorkin and President Josiah Bartlet. It’s been nearly 6 years since the series finale of "The West Wing," and more than 12 since the one-hour drama, which Sorkin created and largely wrote, first walked and talked its way through NBC’s Wednesday-night lineup; and yet you might think the series never ended, given the currency it still seems to enjoy in Washington, the frequency with which it comes up in D.C. conversations and is quoted or referenced on political blogs. In part this is because the smart, nerdy—they might prefer “precocious”—kids who grew up in the early part of the last decade worshipping the cool, technocratic charm of Sorkin’s characters have today matured into the young policy prodigies and press operatives who advise, brief, and excuse the behavior of the most powerful people in the country.

In the same way that the noble, sleeves-rolled sleuthing of Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman as Woodward and Bernstein in 'All the President’s Men' prompted legions of baby-boomers to dream of careers in journalism, The West Wing, which made policy discussions seem thrilling and governing heroic, has become a totem—its romanticization of a stuffy, insular industry infusing a historically uncool career with cultural cachet. Rather than treat the political process as risible at best ('Dick,' say, or 'Primary Colors'), a horror show at worst ('The Ides of March'), The West Wing was pluckily idealistic. A hyper-real drama about waiting for a callback from some freshman congressman (D—Nowheresville) would have sent aspiring White House interns and aides running back to law school. Instead, "The West Wing" “took something that was for the most part considered dry and nerdy—especially to people in high school and college—and sexed it up,” says Eric Lesser, who worked in the Obama White House as a special assistant to former senior adviser David Axelrod and is now a student at Harvard Law School.

In Sorkin's political universe, most of those in government are good public servants who are trying to do their best to make a difference. Those with principles are victorious over those who spread half-truths & distortions. And all that is necessary for the best political policy to carry the day, no matter how controversial it might be, is the guts to say what you mean & mean what you say.

"The West Wing" also had a way of being preachy in entertaining ways, which is not always easy. It also cut through some of the shit of conservative cultural arguments. For example, conservatives who want to call others sluts & whores, but are public embarrassments themselves.

Aaron Sorkin: "Our leaders, government people are [usually] portrayed either as dolts or as Machiavellian somehow. The characters in this show are neither. They are flawed, to be sure, because you need characters in drama to have flaws. But they, all of them, have set aside probably more lucrative lives for public service. They are dedicated not just to this president, but to doing good, rather than doing well. The show is kind of a valentine to public service. It celebrates our institutions. It celebrates education often. These characters are very well educated, and while sometimes playfully snobby about it, there is, in all of them, a love of learning and appreciation of education."
However, the 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington' version of politics does not always track with real-world politics. "Good" & right do not always win in the end, lies & distortions can work all too well, and "how" something is said or done can be judged to be just as important, if not more important, than what is actually said.

David Simon's critically acclaimed "The Wire" takes a much darker view of institutions and the people involved in politics. Over the course of the show, every institution, whether it be local or state government, labor unions, the public school district, the police department, or even the Baltimore Sun, is in some way corrupt or incompetent, and fails in their stated goals. And the "good" people who come into those institutions, with ideas & hope of changing things for the better, are ultimately crushed by the weight of the system.

David Simon: "I am wholly pessimistic about American society. I believe that "The Wire" is a show about the end of the American empire. I believe that we all—or our kids—are going to live that event. And how we end up at the end of it and where we end up and whether or not we can survive it on what terms is going to be the only question from now on... The great conceit of The Wire…[is that] every single moment on this planet from here on out human beings are worth less… human beings have lost some of their value."
Armando Iannucci's sitcom "The Thick of It," and its feature film spinoff 'In the Loop,' take a very dark, cynical view of British politics. Largely a scathing parody of New Labour's image conscious government between 1997 and 2010, "The Thick of It" has been described as the Anti-West Wing, and largely fits that description.

Almost every character is either inept or corrupt. Most of the action is centered around the Prime Minister's Director of Communications, Malcolm Tucker (with Peter Capaldi's character based in part on Tony Blair's Director of Communications/hatchet man Alastair Campbell). The show portrays the spin doctors and the media, not the politicians, as the most powerful forces in British politics.

To that end, both "The Thick of It" and 'In the Loop' seem to say that public policy is not born out of good ideas, but as the product that results from spinning the bad ideas that didn't play well.

"I'm a man of principle: I like to know whether I'm lying to save the skin of a tosser or a moron."
— Malcolm Tucker
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Comment Preferences

  •  I really enjoyed In the Loop, but wow was it (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Rimjob, Trix, palantir

    a cynical, cynical movie.  If it hadn't been funny you'd crawl under your bed in despair.

    Saint, n. A dead sinner revised and edited. - Ambrose Bierce

    by pico on Wed Mar 07, 2012 at 07:23:22 PM PST

  •  I miss that show. (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Rimjob, palantir, ontario, oortdust

    It helped me survive the bush years without losing it.

    And it was a real Rorschach test for people.  

    I think it is indicative of some aspects of American politics, but clearly not the majority.  I'd like to think the Whitehouse today is closer to what was depicted than it was under the previous occupant by a wide margin.  

    Certainly from our standpoint, this gives us a sense of momentum -- when the United States has accolades tossed its way, rather than shoes. - PJ Crowley

    by nsfbr on Wed Mar 07, 2012 at 07:28:17 PM PST

  •  Yes, Prime Minister (5+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    palantir, twigg, ontario, oortdust, Rimjob

    Another good political show.

    Shows back door dealings and how the politicians are nothing but puppets played by powerful forces.

    Although it is funny, it is true.

    May favorite statement: "Don't believe anything until it has been denied."

    •  When I worked in theCanadianPrivy Council Office (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      in the 70-80's, Yes, PM and Yes, Minsiter were sometimes discussed at weekly senior staff meetings. Sometimes it seemed as if they had found an episode's theme from events I had experienced myself.

      I remember times at work when I did not know whether to laugh or cry - usually the cause of either was a dumb Minister, not the Prime Minister.

      Even though a different system of government vs. the Parliamentary one in which I worked, I found our work was more characterized by the nobility of causes and the professionalism of analysis as came through more often in West Wing, than the crass politics, manipulation and bumbling of Yes, Prime Minister.

      "...stories of past courage can define that ingredient..... But they cannot supply courage itself. For this each man must look into his own soul." JFK Profiles in Courage

      by ontario on Wed Mar 07, 2012 at 08:24:58 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Fictional President Bartlett is a powerful (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Rimjob, palantir

    symbol, even to the right.  In New Hampshire, the RadicalRight think tank is tilted the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy.

    See the List for the State Policy Network, a consortium of RadicalRight wing think tanks.  See New Hampshire.

    Imagine that a right wing think tank that espouses libertarian or corporatist state policies has co-opted the name of a fictional liberal president as a means to obscure their true mission.

    I think that this is an indication of the power these images have in the American imagination, as a corporatist think tank uses the image of a wise liberal TV president as its symbol to hide the truth about its policy mission, which is the exact opposite of a wise liberal.  Thick with irony, isn't it?

    Republicans are like alligators. All mouth and no ears.

    by Ohiodem1 on Wed Mar 07, 2012 at 07:29:39 PM PST

    •  ummmm.... (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Fictional President Bartlett is a powerful symbol, even to the right.  In New Hampshire, the RadicalRight think tank is tilted the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy.
      You know the reason the fictional President was named Josiah Bartlet, right?

      "When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist." --Dom Helder Camara, archbishop of Recife

      by JamesGG on Wed Mar 07, 2012 at 09:03:44 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  I am a West Wing groupie (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Rimjob, palantir, glorificus, ontario

    and I feel I learned much of what I know about politics from watching it. Definitely more than the political science courses I took in college! I love the characters and the snappy dialogue. Guess I'm just sappy.

  •  Worth Noting That West Wing Came Along 30 Years (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    palantir, ontario, Rimjob

    into the rightwing revolution, ownership's war on democracy. It was 20 years after the Democratic Party became conservative, in a society whose public square which is Constitutionally ceded to global information warlords was by then well along developing its freedom from business regulations swept away almost 2 decades earlier that had trapped it into serving the public interests at times.

    Climate change and tobacco toxicity were known but were being vigorously denied. We had strapped afterburners onto the rocket transferring wealth and welfare of the 99% to the 1%. The economy was a foaming mass of half a dozen and more unsustainable bubbles from stocks and high tech and especially to housing --housing already having blown past 100 year peaks. We were deregulating high finance and pumping production and employment offshore.

    Basically, the global superpower was batshit insane when The West Wing opened.

    If the show was not indicative of American politics, that wouldn't make it unusual the mainstream could see here inside the Information Iron Curtain.

    We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy.... --ML King "Beyond Vietnam"

    by Gooserock on Wed Mar 07, 2012 at 07:38:28 PM PST

  •  The West Wing... (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    ontario, Rimjob

    ... one of my all time favorite shows.

    Took a little bit of the edge off Bush/Cheney.

  •  I do have to say, contra Vanity Fair, (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Rimjob, Ms Citizen

    that Primary Colors does not treat politics as risible (nor is the movie itself.)  I know a lot of people hate it, but I think it's a fair assessment of the way that idealism and compromise conflict on the campaign trail, and probably more than any other source convinced me that I'm not cut out for a political career.  

    Saint, n. A dead sinner revised and edited. - Ambrose Bierce

    by pico on Wed Mar 07, 2012 at 08:39:43 PM PST

    •  In Comparison To..... (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      ...'The Ides of March,' I thought 'Primary Colors' did a better job covering similar ground.

      There's a scene in 'Primary Colors' where Jack Stanton's campaign is crashing, but instead of being worried about his political survival, Stanton is across the street in a coffee shop talking to the guy behind the counter, worried about the worker's well-being. Stanton is a very flawed character, but you can see how someone would fight for him. There's nothing like that in 'The Ides of March' for George Clooney's character (Governor Morris) in 'The Ides of March.'

      And it's probably my biggest problem with the film, since I just never felt Clooney's character was some sort of "great hope" that people would be willing to go to extraordinary depths to protect.

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