I have had a half and half life: my formative years were in the United States, my later years have been spent in Britain. Because of this mixture, I sometimes am struck by the comparisons and contrasts that can be drawn between the two countries. Contrary to what some French thinkers may believe, there is no unifying “Anglo-Saxon” culture; the variances can be quite stark.
I encountered one of the differences on Thursday night; I was watching Season Seven of The West Wing, the plot concerned a fictional 2006 Presidential election. Halfway through, it dawned on me that this was an example of how differently Americans and Britons view their government: Americans tend to make dramas about politics, the British tend to make comedies. The West Wing is one of my favourite dramas. “Yes, Prime Minister” and “The New Statesman” are two of the funniest programmes I’ve ever seen.
This is not to say that this is exclusive: America has plenty of satire programmes (The Daily Show springs to mind). Dramas about British government have also been made, including the House of Cards series; with a certain generosity of spirit, the John LeCarre “George Smiley” dramas can also be included in this list.
Comedy and reality have collided in Britain: the well-timed remark by the Liberal Democrat MP Vince Cable about Gordon Brown’s transformation from “Stalin to Mr. Bean” is a leading example. Similarly, drama and reality are fusing in America: there have been a number of commentators on both sides of the Atlantic which have noted the striking similarity between The West Wing’s seventh season and the 2008 election. The Republican candidate in the programme, Arnold Vinick, was obviously based upon John McCain: he is shown as a man who is out of step with his own party, and primarily famous for “straight talking”. He also is from the West, albeit in his case he is from California rather than Arizona.
The Democrat candidate, Matt Santos, is also rather like Barack Obama in a number of ways: he is a candidate with a minority background, articulate, compassionate and youthful, with a limited tenure in national government. Indeed, there have been suggestions that the writers of the West Wing were in touch with one of Obama’s campaign managers, David Axelrod, who suggested they use many of Obama’s attributes in formulating Santos’ character.
It is a fault of our age that many apparently believe the line between fiction and reality is blurred. Many young people grow up with the aspiration to be on television; the thousands of people who volunteer to be imprisoned on the Big Brother programme for several months is ample evidence of how this desire permeates society. This can lead to a perception that television is real life; perhaps some are subconsciously waiting for Santos in their support of Obama.
It’s a nice idea: Santos is an attractive character. His “biography” states he was Mayor of Houston, and is a reservist with the United States Marines. He is also a proven liberal Democrat with a passion for education reform. He wears the mantle of responsibility with aplomb, and even after he wins the election, he does not appear to take himself too seriously. He is genuinely bipartisan, and he gives the vanquished Vinick an important role as Secretary of State.
When Senator Obama began to run for President, it is perhaps understandable that there were some who wanted real life to be made analogous to the West Wing script. A sketch on the British comedy programme Dead Ringers made clear the difference: in it, a scene from the West Wing was re-created, starting with a President Bartlet impersonator writing a letter in Latin to a foreign dignitary. He sadly informs those around him that he is not the actual President; when the other characters ask him who the real one is, the lights went up on a comedian dressed as President Bush, who let fly with a burst of staccato, idiotic laughter.
West Wing viewers never see Santos do anything underhanded or dirty. We never see his morals falter; certainly, he has doubts, but these have more to do with making the right decision rather than personal ethics. The closest he comes to having any moral quandry is when he has to decide whether to purge a large number of his campaign staff, and having decided to execute on it, he leaves the job to his subordinates.
However, the West Wing’s politics are not realistic. No doubt Senator Obama is having to do more than “grip and grin” and avoid catching colds from all the babies he’s having to kiss. Santos picks up the badge of “liberal” in a national debate, and does so proudly, yet in the end manages to win the states of Texas, South Carolina and Nevada. Senator Obama doesn’t have that luxury. Worse, he and his team are not facing a man as moral as Vinick, who eschewed ads from independent “527” groups. Rather, Obama has a response room whose sole purpose is to anticipate the realisation of ever darkening dreams.
Obama has more personal vices than Santos; he admits that he smokes from time to time to relieve stress. He has been known to get tense when his wife is in the media’s crosshairs; Santos is surprisingly cool under strain.
In fact, Santos is preferable to Senator Obama in most respects: however, Santos does not exist.
I don’t want to blame the writers of the West Wing for the continuing cry of disappointment of progressives with Senator Obama. After all, the creators are purveyors of fiction, who were at the height of their craft when they created the nail biting Season Seven. There is a human instinct to wish for both convenience and completeness; progressives wanted Senator Obama to somehow give them everything, yet to somehow have moderates to come along with him. This was about as likely as America electing Santos’ fictional predecessor: remember, President Bartlet is from New Hampshire, has a Phd in Economics from the London School of Economics, and is highly ethical. In short, in reality, he would have been attacked as a Northeastern liberal who had been trained by European socialists and had delusions of moral superiority; 527 ads would have beaten such a candidacy to death.
Under these circumstances, we should perhaps be glad that Senator Obama is as good as he is, and getting away with as much change as he proposes and yet remains viable. Waiting for Santos, or Bartlet for that matter is relying on dreams. Dreams without practicality have a bad habit of being as strong as a soap bubble, subject to being punctured the moment it is first caught by an ill favoured breeze.