Acting president

With presidential hopefuls popping up on everything from MTV (John McCain) to David Letterman's "Late Show" (Al Gore), it's hard to ignore the impact of the popular media on real-world politics today.

But for most of television's history, politics has been considered "TV poison" for prime-time dramas or even sitcoms, such as the short-lived "The Senator" in 1970 and "Capital News" in 1990.

Some newer shows, like ABC's hit sitcom "Spin City," and in particular NBC's freshman drama "The West Wing," with a weekly audience of nearly 13 million viewers, are changing that truism.

"It's entry level into the world of politics in a way that TV hasn't done in a long time," says Robert Thompson, director of the center for the study of popular television at Syracuse (N.Y.) University.

"Over on the Warner Brothers lot, the Oval Office desk on 'The West Wing' set is an exact replica of [John F.] Kennedy's," says production designer Ken Hardy, "complete with the door John-John crawled through in that famous photo."

On the other hand, how realistic is it that the show's president, Josiah Bartlet (portrayed by Martin Sheen), could have been elected to the nation's highest office without any member of today's press corps discovering that he had multiple sclerosis, as was revealed in a recent episode?

"We vetted that through Dee Dee Myers," says writer-creator Aaron Sorkin, referring to Clinton's former press secretary who is now a staff consultant on the show.

The show heads boldly into thorny territory. Characters such as deputy communications director Sam Seaborn (played by Rob Lowe) and press secretary C.J. Gregg (Allison Janney) wrestle earnestly with the political and personal implications of a wide variety of topics, from capital punishment to gays in the military. In the process, the audience gets a mini-civics lesson in the most dramatic - and powerful - way.

"Some people are watching 'West Wing' now," Dr. Thompson says, "who are making career decisions. There are future school-board supervisors, mayors, all kinds of people who are getting into the nobility of politics from that show."

To hear the show's creators tell it, it is also a good reflection of the state of the American political mind. "There's a huge hunger to believe in something," says producer John Wells. After the scandal in the Clinton White House, he says, the show's producers felt they "had a responsibility to show a president with a moral center."

His goal is to humanize politicians. "We hope to show that these conversations take place," Mr. Wells says, "that there is more serious thought taking place [in Washington] than the world of sound bites."

"There is a deep desire to turn [the cynicism of the Clinton scandal] around," says Alan Heslop, professor of government at Claremont (Calif.) McKenna College. While he wonders about the power of a single show to accomplish such an ambitious goal, he concedes, "Popular culture has enormous significance politically," pointing to what he calls the cross-fertilization between politics and popular culture at every level.

"Today's presidential and statewide candidates trade in the coin of popular culture. They use the symbols, the expressions, the passions," Dr. Heslop says. Indeed, the themes of network television shows "are more instantly recognizable to the voting public than the classical literature or historical allusions in which politicians once traded."

"Movies and television at their best help focus discussions," agrees Robert Scheer, a visiting professor of journalism at the University of Southern California and a syndicated columnist. Despite the awareness of the power of popular media, Scheer says we've actually underestimated it, with the younger generation in particular.

"I find with my students," Mr. Scheer says, "if you want to have a serious discussion about anything, you better connect it to the movies." Television has a particular function in the popular mind. "If you go back to shows like 'Lou Grant' and look at giants like Norman Lear," Scheer says, "television shows have had tremendous impact on our culture as far as creating role models. There's simply no denying their power."

While the Clinton scandal is still fresh in the public mind, most pundits suggest today's cynicism has deeper roots going back to Watergate and President Nixon's resignation. "All the President's Men" (1976), a movie detailing the Nixon scandal, led to a boom in applications to journalism schools, specifically investigative journalism.

"Everyone wanted to be the next [investigative reporter] Bob Woodward," says Pulitzer-prize winner Edwin Guthman, who was press secretary to Robert Kennedy Jr.

Today's popular TV shows are following the same pattern. "We faced the same problem with 'ER,' " says "West Wing" producer Wells, also producer of the hit emergency-room show. "Medicine in general was getting a bad rap. But after 'ER' went on the air, there was a 310 percent jump in applications to medical schools."

But just as "ER" is more about the spirit than the technique of medicine, "West Wing" is about the soul of political life rather than a particular political viewpoint.

"It's really a show about being sincere in a cynical and ironic world," Thompson suggests. "It's a good old-fashioned story about battered knights who will go down trying."

The man who gave birth to the drama agrees. "We're not telling anyone to eat their vegetables with this show," says writer-creator Sorkin. "When people talk, it's going to be for the sake of drama and not for the sake of winning your vote or somehow changing your mind."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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