US Politics

The Making of the Presidents: how the Oval Office was shrunk to fit the small screen

BY Walter Ellis | Waltroon   /  24 August 2017

“Do you miss me now?” This, you may recall, was the cheeky question Barack Obama asked of the American people some while after the arrival in the Oval Office of his calamitous successor, Donald J Trump.

The same might equally be said of the Administration of President Josiah “Jed” Bartlet, whose term as America’s most famous fictional President ended in 2006 with a plaintiff sequence of episodes starting with “Requiem” and ending, by way of “Institutional Memory,” with the forward-looking “Tomorrow”.

Even the titles of the episodes hearken back to a more innocent age, when it was possible to believe in the seriousness and good intentions of the President and his senior staff. If Band of Brothers was America’s ultimate homage to the Greatest Generation, The West Wing was its most respectful tribute to the Founding Fathers.

A president more unlike Donald Trump than Jed Bartlet is difficult to imagine. A practising Catholic as well as a winner of the Nobel Prize for Economics, he was like a character out of the Good News Bible, both Jesuitical and Christlike. His Chief of Staff, Leo McGarry, was played as a stone-faced Saint Peter, while Press Secretary C.J. Cregg was both Moses – a nod to the President’s Old Testament side – and John the Baptist, a true voice crying in the wilderness. Saint Thomas, tormented by doubt, was represented by Toby Ziegler, CJ’s boss as head of communications,whose principled leak of damaging information to the press resulted first in his downfall, then in his pardon by the man he had betrayed.

Never was there a more high-minded West Wing than that assembled by writer and executive producer Aaron Sorkin. Guided by morality, constrained by integrity, their occasional venality and party loyalities held in check by the saintly Bartlet, their only wish was to leave America in a better and more elevated state than that in which they found it.

Fast forward now to House of Cards, the fifth season of which has been playing this summer on Netflix UK. House of Cards is the bizarro version of The West Wing. President Francis Underwood is Richard Nixon with a license to kill, obsessed with power and the bogus legacy he plans to leave behind after a lifetime of villainy. His wife, Claire, later the Vice President and then (spoiler alert!) herself POTUS (having stolen the top job from her husband), is a Christian Dior Lady Macbeth, who keeps a vial of poison in her handbag next to the Chanel 5.

Serving this unwholesome pair is chief of staff Doug Stamper, a psychopathic Machiavelli, of whom it might be said that his only crime was loyalty, except that murder-on-demand is an integral part of his political M.O.

Some might wonder why Francis doesn’t simply do the job he was elected to do. He is a past master at Congressional politics and his manifesto seems at least as sensible, and moderate, as that of Obama. It can only be because he’s evil and can’t help himself. No one, after all, asks why Hitler didn’t introduce improved welfare benefits for single mothers.

Madam Secretary, now heading into its fourth season, is the closest in spirit to The West Wing, and for that reason seems peculiarly unreal. Secretary of State Elizabeth McCord, played by the glamourous Téa Leoni, with legs up to here, seems to work 24 hours a day solving the world’s problems while simultaneously maintaining a good relationship with her husband (a theologian-turned CIA spy) and raising her three teenage children, each of whom is conflicted yet annoyingly smug and self-satisfied.

Secretary McCord has her own, equally conflicted staff, who clearly grew up watching The West Wing. Their romantic lives are going nowhere, which is just as well as the only thing they are allowed to do off-duty is drink at Dupont circle bars, where the repartee is as sharp as a knife in the back. The State Department’s foil is White House Chief of Staff Russell Jackson, a Doug Stamper lookalike who resents McCord’s closeness to the President but, as a benign version of his House of Cards counterpart, at least knows how the system works and where the bodies are buried.

The President in this incarnation of the Oval Office is the stately Conrad Dalton, who in profile resembles the bald eagle recurringly featured on U.S. postage stamps. Crusty but benevolent, Dalton seems to exists only to intervene at appropriate make-or-break moments. He doesn’t so much preside as hold himself in readiness in case things get out of hand. If he has a domestic policy agenda, he clearly doesn’t want to talk about it. Foreign policy is all that matters. The President and McCord talk all the time to their opposite numbers by video link. The Chinese foreign minister is a particular pleasure. Scheming, cynical, witty and cutting, he likes to spar with McCord, who gives as good as she gets. If only real-life diplomacy had the same writers as Madam Secretary.

The best, or at least the funniest, writers are in fact retained by Veep, the multi-award-winning sitcom created by our own Armando Iannucci, of The Thick of It, starring Julie-Louis Dreyfus, “Elaine” from Seinfeld, as Vice President Selina Myer. This is a belter. It is what House of Cards would be like if it was written by Iannucci instead of the Devil. No one in Veep is honest, still less sincere. They are all grotesques, from the Veep down, utterly hapless and collectively dysfunctional, so scathing and manipulative of each other and everything that practical policy rarely even features on the agenda.

There are those in Washington who say that, in its celebration of excess and ignorance, the Trump White House far outdoes its small-screen rivals, which at least make an attempt to reflect reality. “You couldn’t make it up,” is how it is usually put. “You can’t make a cartoon out of a caricature.” There is, of course, truth in this. None of the tv presidents or their top people have called for a 2,500-mile wall along the southern frontier, paid for by those it is intended to keep out, or expressed their admiration of the “many fine people” associated with the Ku Klux Klan or the Nazi Party, or threatened North Korea with “fire and fury”. In this sense, as in many (many) others The Trump Show is just so unique … so unique.

Which brings us to Designated Survivor, the latest in an increasingly crowded genre. The backdrop to this show is literally explosive. In episode one, the Capitol building is blown up by what turn out to be home-grown terrorists – i.e. not islamist crazies – during the State of the Union speech. The blast kills the President, his entire cabinet (except for the eponymous Designated Survivor) and all but a couple of members of Congress. You would think this would be traumatic event, but everyone seems to get over it by the time of episode three. Lowly Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Tom Kirkman, played by Kiefer Sutherland, is, as the last man standing, propelled into the Oval Office, where he becomes a Super President, albeit with a penchant for Clark Kent’s jumpers, which rather begs the question, how come nobody noticed him before?

Much heart-wrenching dialogue ensues. While leaving a lone famale FBI agent to investigate how a bomb as big as Wales was smuggled into the Capitol, and who was responsible, Kirkman immediately channels Jed Bartlet and devotes himself to restoring “normalcy” to the nation.

A new Congress is hastily elected, full of ingénues who, in spite of knowing nothing about anything, are at once consumed by ambition and narrow party intrigues. Can Kirkman, unlike his newly-appointed Vice President, avoid getting assassinated long enough to get something done about climate change and healthcare reform? And will the First Lady, a toothsome equal opportunities lawyer, get the chance to organise a party in the Rose Garden in support of improved interfaith relations? If you can stay awake through season two, you may just find out.

There is room for just one last gem. The Brink, a cartoon of the caricatures that are House of Cards and Veep, erupted on our screens in 2015, a full year before Trump secured the nomination of the Republican Party. Merciless in its savagery, with a narcissistic President concerned only with his “numbers,” a Secretary of State who, while smarter than the rest, rampages across the world like a priapic rhino, and a Defence Secretary determined to show whose bucks have bought the biggest bangs, this representation of a demented Washington made compulsive viewing but somehow got itself cancelled for being in “bad taste”.

Bad taste? If only that was where the bar was set.