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The West Wing - A liberal Catholic White House?


In person, I have seen Martin Sheen in action only once. But there was something presidential about his appearance -- though we’ve never heard a president say what he said.

He was the graduation speaker at Loyola University in New Orleans, an invitation he had accepted because his friend, Jesuit Fr. Daniel Berrigan, was getting an honorary degree, and Sheen, who had played a role in the dramatization of “The Trial of the Catonsville Nine,” would not miss a chance to sing Dan’s praises. He also used the occasion to plead with the governor of Louisiana, a state that executes lots of people, to not execute a man scheduled for death that week.

Some people in the audience gave Sheen some hoots and hollers, but he carried on.

So news that Sheen would portray the president of the United States in the new NBC TV weekly drama, “The West Wing” (Wednesdays, 9 p.m., eastern) was good. He had starred in docudramas on the Kennedys, there was some rough correspondence between the roles he played and what he believed, and the public -- particularly liberal Catholics -- was, to some degree, used to thinking of him as maybe a better president than the one in the White House.

Of course, we know the basic distinctions between an actor and his roles; but NBC does not plan an expensive prime-time series like this one on such artistic distinctions. It bets its money on a public nostalgic longing for an administration led by a sophisticated, principled, witty, inspiring fellow whose rhetoric could call up our better selves. A pre-Marilyn Monroe JFK. The promo piece in The New York Times ’ TV guide says that president Josiah Bartlet is a middle-of-the-road New Hampshire Democrat. If that was established in the first two episodes, which I watched twice, it was said by a presidential staff member running out of an office, talking to four people at the same time. I just presumed Josiah Bartlet was a liberal Catholic.

Each episode features four subplots spun off from a relatively trivial premise: The president has fallen off his bike; a staff member has offended conservative Christians on a talk show, and they demand his hide; the president has offended Texas and the Ryder Cup team by a joke about Cowboy hats -- and they all demand apologies. The president handles these crises with bursts of rhetoric and gnomic quips, like “Post hoc, ergo propter hoc” -- impressing TV viewers, perhaps, but confusing staff members who didn’t go to Jesuit high schools and don’t know Latin.

For the rest of the show, bright youngish staff men and women run around shouting and whispering at one another about how to deal with the boss and how to clean up the little messes they have made that might embarrass the administration.

Rob Lowe plays a deputy communications director who picks up a pretty woman in a bar and sleeps with her, and she turns out to be a high-priced prostitute shared by a number of D.C. biggies. He compounds this indiscretion -- to White House embarrassment -- by pursuing her, with the idea that romance with him will make her respectable.

Rob Lowe might have other acting credentials, but it is hard to escape the idea that this part was written for him because he is best known for the scandal a few years ago in which he was videotaped having sexual intercourse with a couple of young women who made the tape more or less publicly available.

But we get an idea of what principles the scriptwriters -- their eyes on nothing but the ratings -- want to uphold by the way they pick and resolve their major conflicts.

At the end of the first episode, before President Bartlet has even made an appearance, the chief of staff has set up a coffee table meeting with a delegation of Christians whom Josh Lyman, the deputy chief, has offended on TV. The Christians want him dead, and the chief is willing to sacrifice him but wants to save his job. Josh grovels, apologizes, drools on his knees. The Christians are unimpressed. They say, “OK. What do we get?” What political payoff will the president give the Christians to make them shut up about being insulted?

One Christian then dares to say to Josh and his cohort that he doesn’t appreciate their “New York” attitude. Aha! “New York,” we are told, is clearly code for “pushy Jew.” The Christians are exposed as anti-Semites! At this the president of the United States rolls in quoting the Ten Commandments -- “I am the Lord Thy God ... ” -- and throws the Christians out of his office. Score: Jews, 1; Christians, 0.

How much courage and imagination does it take for a scriptwriter to make Christians look foolish and to scold anti-Semitism on a prime-time network TV? The fundamentalist Christian is already a stock figure of mockery all over the dial. The week before, I watched Bill Maher, comic host of ABC’s late-night “Politically Incorrect,” make a mockery of a fundamentalist Christian who had been foolish enough to appear on his program. As the panelists -- unknown actors and actresses and the head of the ACLU -- and the audience of young people cheered and jeered, Maher told the crowd “Christianity is based on paganism.” Proof: Dec. 25th used to be a Roman holiday.

Reacting to the first “West Wing,” Newsweek noted that, for a liberal White House, there didn’t seem to be enough blacks. In the second, I counted at least seven -- in the press corps, on the staff, running around frantically in back. Above all, in a new character, a black M.D., a colonel whom the president likes and makes his official doctor.

We see that President Bartlet, for all his swagger, has no military experience and is not really that sure of himself face-to-face with the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He turns his medical doctor into a psychiatrist and confesses his weakness. The doctor tells him to follow his own instincts and to remember, “You outrank them.” Then the doctor takes off for a weeklong humanitarian mission to Jordan.

Suddenly, it is 3:45 a.m., and the White House lights are burning. Crisis. Alone in his office the president is told that the plane carrying his doctor has been shot down by a missile fired from a shoulder-carried launcher on order of the Syrian Defense Ministry.

President Bartlet solemnly replies, “I’m not frightened. I’m going to blow them off the face of the earth with the fury of God’s own thunder.”

The chief of staff replies: “Yes, commander.”

Again, how much courage or imagination does it take to cough up a scenario like that? Once again, Arab villains. Once again, play to a prime-time audience who loves to see a president promise hellfire retribution within 10 seconds of getting some information. War! And once again, a president who tells us once a week that he’s speaking for God.

Dan Berrigan, talk to this guy.

Jesuit Fr. Raymond A. Schroth writes a regular media column for NCR.

National Catholic Reporter, October 22, 1999