Over the last week, as I've been adjusting to new sleep cycles (from the chemo? Possibly - maybe also just from my cold), I've been watching a lot of cable t.v. In particular, I've been catching reruns of the West Wing, the show I watched during much of Bush's presidency so that I could pretend that things weren't really as bad as they are and that there really was a smart, sane president in charge of the country.
Today, I saw this article in the NY Times about Barack Obama, John McCain, and the fictional campaign race between Democrat Matthew Santos (Jimmy Smits) and Republican Arnold Vinick (Alan Alda). Apparently, writers of the West Wing based Santos' campaign - and, perhaps, his character - on then up-and-coming Barack Obama.
After living vicariously in the West Wing all these years, it's nice to know that this fictional reality seems likely to come true!
Following the Script: Obama, McCain and ‘The West Wing’
By BRIAN STELTER
Published: October 29, 2008
When Eli Attie, a writer for “The West Wing,” prepared to plot some episodes about a young Democratic congressman’s unlikely presidential bid, he picked up the phone and called David Axelrod.
Mr. Attie, a former speechwriter for Vice President Al Gore, and Mr. Axelrod, a political consultant, had crossed campaign trails before. “I just called him and said, ‘Tell me about Barack Obama,’ ” Mr. Attie said.
Days after Mr. Obama, then an Illinois state senator, delivered an address to the 2004 Democratic National Convention, the two men held several long conversations about his refusal to be defined by his race and his aspirations to bridge the partisan divide. Mr. Axelrod was then working on Mr. Obama’s campaign for the United States Senate; he is now Mr. Obama’a chief strategist.
Four years later, the writers of “The West Wing” are watching in amazement as the election plays out. The parallels between the final two seasons of the series (it ended its run on NBC in May 2006) and the current political season are unmistakable. Fiction has, once again, foreshadowed reality.
Watching “The West Wing” in retrospect — all seven seasons are available on DVD, and episodes can be seen in syndication — viewers can see allusions to Mr. Obama in almost every facet of Matthew Santos, the Hispanic Democratic candidate played by Jimmy Smits. Santos is a coalition-building Congressional newcomer who feels frustrated by the polarization of Washington. A telegenic and popular fortysomething with two young children, Santos enters the presidential race and eventually beats established candidates in a long primary campaign.
Wearing a flag pin, Santos announces his candidacy by telling supporters, “I am here to tell you that hope is real.” And he adds, “In a life of trial, in a world of challenges, hope is real.” Viewers can almost hear the crowd cheering, “Yes, we can.”
Comparisons between Senator John McCain and the “West Wing” Republican candidate, Arnold Vinick, a white-haired Senate stalwart with an antitax message and a reputation for delivering “straight talk” to the press, also abound. Vinick, played by Alan Alda, is deemed a threat to Democrats because of his ability to woo moderate voters. And he takes great pride in his refusal to pander to voters, telling an aide: “People know where I stand. They may not like it, but they know I’ll stick with it.”
Even the vice-presidential picks are similar: the Democrat picks a Washington veteran as his vice presidential candidate to add foreign policy expertise to the ticket, while the Republican selects a staunchly conservative governor to shore up the base.
Certainly some of the parallels are coincidental. It is unlikely, for example, that the writers knew Mr. Obama had an affection for Bob Dylan when they made Santos a Dylan fan. But it is the unintentional similarities that make the DVDs of the sixth and seventh seasons, which at the time received mixed reviews, so rewarding to watch now. In both “The West Wing” and in real life, for example, the Phillies played in the World Series during the election campaign.
As the primaries unfolded this year, “I saw the similarities right away,” said Lawrence O’Donnell, a producer and writer for the series who has appeared on MSNBC as a political analyst. Mr. O’Donnell had used Mr. McCain as one of the templates for the Vinick character in the episodes he wrote, though he said that “McCain’s resemblance to the Vinick character was much stronger in 2000 than in 2008.”
Echoing the criticism Mr. McCain faced during the primaries, a White House aide in “The West Wing” contends that Vinick is “not conservative enough” for the Republican base. Sometimes the two candidates’ situations are almost identical: when the press starts asking where Vinick attends church, he tells his staff that “I haven’t gone to church for a while.” Asked in July by The New York Times about the frequency of his church attendance, Mr. McCain said, “Not as often as I should.”
Mr. Alda and Mr. McCain are the same age. When a hard-edged strategist played by Janeane Garofalo joins the Santos campaign, she immediately alludes to Vinick’s age. “He’s been in the Senate for like 90 years. He was practically born in a committee room,” she says.
In the same way that Obama surrogates have subtly knocked Mr. McCain’s lack of computer skills, the Garofalo character remarks to the Santos campaign manager, Josh Lyman: “Why are you always talking about high-tech jobs? Because Vinick uses a manual typewriter.”
Conversely, Santos staffers talk about getting video of the candidate with his “adorable young children hugging their hale and vital dad.” The casting of Mr. Smits introduced story lines about the prospect of a minority president. But when an aide suggests a fund-raising drive in a Latino community, Santos snaps: “I don’t want to just be the brown candidate. I want to be the American candidate.” The Obama campaign has made similar assertions.
Still, “The West Wing” — like Mr. Obama — does not ignore racial issues entirely. In the seventh season Santos delivers a speech on race at a critical moment for his campaign, and staffers privately worry that voters will lie about their willingness to vote for a minority candidate.
If the show sometimes seems like a political fantasy — a real debate where politicians are required to answer questions? a candidate rejecting an attack ad? — it also reflects the tenor of the real-life campaign season.
Santos wins the nomination only after a lengthy fight on the convention floor, an inexact parallel to Obama’s extended primary fight with Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton. Just as the Obama campaign pivoted to the economy this fall, Lyman tells Santos staffers that “this new economic message may be our ticket,” and he winds up being right. An economic crisis does not ensue, but back-to-back emergencies on “The West Wing” — a nuclear power plant malfunction and a dispute in Kazakhstan — bring to mind the election-defining qualities of the actual economic crisis.
“Dramatically, they are exactly the same thing: the unforseeable,” Mr. O’Donnell said.
As President Bush did during the bailout talks, Jed Bartlet, the Democratic “West Wing” president played by Martin Sheen, brings both candidates to the White House for a briefing. Facing the prospect of deploying 150,000 American soldiers to Kazakhstan three weeks before the election, Vinick grumbles, “I can say goodbye to my tax cut.” He tells Santos, “Your education plan’s certainly off the table.”
Santos emerges victorious weeks later, but only after a grueling election night. Online, some “West Wing” fans are wondering whether the show will wind up forecasting the real-life result as well. In Britain, where the series remains popular in syndication, a recent headline on a blog carried by the newspaper The Telegraph declared: “Barack Obama will win: It’s all in ‘The West Wing.’ ”