The news is in, and President Bush doesn’t read it. On national television last week, President Bush told Fox News anchorman Brit Hume, “I glance at the headlines just to get the kind of flavor for what’s moving. But I rarely read the stories.” The President said he gets “briefed by people who have probably read the news themselves.” Probably.
As the president’s admission aired across the country, the ACLU was suing the Bush administration, charging that the Secret Service is keeping protesters at an unreasonable distance from the president while allowing those with pro-government views to line his motorcade route. During Bush’s trip to Neville Island, Pa., last year, protesters were herded to a remote area out of sight of both the press and the President. As The New York Times noted in an astute editorial last week, there’s a “presidential bubble” swelling over Washington. Educating voters has always been a test for political activists — we just never imagined that our president might be in need of the same edification.
Perhaps during the time President Bush isn’t reading the news, he’s finding some time to watch TV. At least I hope so.
Ever since the election debacle three years ago that made a farce of U.S. politics, I’ve been a loyal viewer of NBC’s fictional portrayal of Washington politics, “The West Wing.” During times of uncertainty, fellow viewers and I have turned to the charismatic and brilliant President Jeb Bartlett, played by Martin Sheen. This past Wednesday night was no different. I joined a group of similarly-minded, idealistic students to see how the White House (Bartlett’s White House) would respond to the latest crisis. The President’s daughter, Zoey, had been kidnapped by members of an international terrorist organization based out of the fictional Middle Eastern country of Kumar.
The parallels of the show’s details to our current political situation are not subtle, but that does not make them less significant. We saw the U.S. assassinate a democratically-elected leader of another country (on TV) only to feel the domestic repercussions as Zoey Bartlett was snatched away by operatives from a local terrorist cell. A Republican leader appointed by unconventional means (not unlike those that brought President Bush into power) then steps into the Oval Office after the President temporarily resigns. To handle the crisis in Kumar, the new president decides “to bomb the hell out of them” while Bartlett’s staff watches in terror, certain that his impulsiveness will kill the President’s daughter.
The creators of the fictional White House have a message to send to the current administration about the domestic repercussions of reckless activity abroad. Yet the resonance between Bartlett and Bush’s White Houses goes beyond that. The show’s writers capture not only the plotline of our current political situation, but also its rhetoric.
In a meeting with the Kumari ambassador, the president’s chief of staff repeats the diplomatic error of being unable to look beyond the influence of Islam; he accuses Kumar of “preaching the overthrow of the United States.” Meanwhile, the head of communications tells a speechwriter that if he goes “two sentences without the phrase ‘unimaginably large military arsenal’ he’s out of his mind.” And as the United States approaches the U.N. for multilateral support, it prepares to “hold Syria’s hand during the process.” Bartlett’s liberal administration becomes complicit in unilateral acts of violence.
As we watched the missteps of our nation on primetime, Bartlett said the words on NBC that we are still waiting to hear on CNN. When Bartlett told his chief of staff, “We started this,” we were reminded that our missteps in the Middle East started long before the Bush administration. It was only five years ago that Clinton justified air strikes against Iraq by pointing to unseen weapons of mass destruction. While Bush may set himself up as an easy target, critics should not be attacking just Bush. Our approaches to diplomacy have been plagued with errors made by liberals and conservatives alike. Reminding us of this might be one of President Bartlett’s most important legacies.
When Michael Moore accepted his Academy Award this past March for his documentary “Bowling for Columbine,” he said, “We live in fictitious times.” While audience members may have scorned Moore’s boldness, those who watched Wednesday night’s “West Wing” can’t deny the consequence of his statement. We are, in fact, living through a political situation that makes for great TV. We once only saw plots to crash airplanes into city skyscrapers in second-rate movies starring the likes of Wesley Snipes. Terrorist schemes to undermine corporate power were the storylines of “Fight Club.” It wasn’t until two years ago that we realized they are also a storyline of our own lives. It’s not overly dramatic to say that we are experiencing a convergence of fantasy and reality. The implausibility of the terror we have experienced and the equal absurdity of the United States’ response have become so fantastic that they tune in millions of viewers on primetime television.
There’s a bubble growing over Washington, and NBC is trying to rupture it. As protesters and news articles continue to stand outside of Bush’s narrowed viewpoint the place to which we once turned to escape reality is showing its potential to reflect our reality. Perhaps our television-obsessed nation can turn to NBC — rather than the news media — to remind us that the use of unprovoked force comes with collateral damage, While in “The West Wing,” the life at stake is that of the president’s daughter, in the real world the lives at stake are those of the soldiers still in Iraq and perhaps even our own.
For 45 minutes on Wednesday night, NBC was using fantasy to make a necessary commentary on reality. But even the fictional world of television could not bear to surrender U.S. invincibility. After the last commercial break, Zoey Bartlett inexplicably surfaces in a Virginia field, six American soldiers are dead, and all is well. So the resemblances between fiction and nonfiction continue.
Benita Singh is a senior in Branford College.