American Dreams

When I was a boy, I wanted to be the president of the United States. A lot of us did. Though we were growing up in the 1970’s, we knew little or nothing of Nixon or Watergate, wiretaps or carpet-bombing. Our images were of George Washington crossing the Delaware, Abraham Lincoln freeing the slaves. Their examples taught us that the most important thing you can do with your life is to try to make the world a better place. My political career, however, was short-lived--a run at class president, crippled by an ill-conceived slogan (“Don’t be a hermit, vote for McDermott”) and years of high school debate. By college, cynicism and disappointment in the political process had taken root, and those early dreams faded, as so many childhood aspirations do.

Then, a few years ago, I came upon The West Wing, NBC’s long-running television program about the fictional President Josiah “Jed” Bartlet (Martin Sheen) and his communications staff (NBC, Sundays, 8 p.m. ET). In contrast to the steady stream of self-interest and scandal presented on the news, the men and women of “The West Wing” were single-minded in their pursuit of the good. They argued, they agonized, they teased. They could be arrogant and self-righteous. Yet their decisions were directed by the clear conviction that despite the many obstacles and inadequacies of the system, it is not only possible for us to make the world a better place, it is our responsibility. Their struggles to achieve that goal lent them nobility.


Now in its seventh and final season, “The West Wing” remains a hymn to our childhood dreams of the common good, the dignity of every human being, the pursuit of justice and democracy. After initially struggling when creator Aaron Sorkin left the show in 2002, the program not only returned to form but took some wonderful risks, including an ongoing presidential campaign between the Catholic, Democratic Congressman Matthew Santos (Jimmy Smits) and the experienced Senator Arnold Vinick (Alan Alda), a pro-choice Republican and the election’s clear front-runner. Like Sheen as the current president, Smits and Alda bring to bear that combination of humanity and intelligence that we yearn to see in our leaders. Santos and Vinick are political idealists who fight for forthright discussion of issues and the best interests of the American people.

As a result, each week “The West Wing” has continued to tackle many of the major issues that we grapple with in civil society and in the church--abortion, intelligent design, Israel/Palestine, church/state, military in harm’s way, the appointment of judges--but with much more nuance and insight than either our real-life press or politicians seem able to muster. When asked if he believes in intelligent design, Santos states (against the advice of his staff), “I believe in God, and I’d like to think that he’s intelligent.” At the same time he argues, “The introduction of nonscientific information into the curriculum of our science classes misrepresents the nature of science.”

Likewise in dealing with a pro-choice group that argues, “pro-choice means you can do whatever thing you want,” the pro-choice Santos responds, “Yes, but it shouldn’t mean we’re proud of whatever it is they choose.” “Abortion,” he argues, “is a tragedy.”

“The West Wing” will be remembered for many things:<p>its numerous accolades (24 Emmys, including four for best drama and eight for acting), its marvelous cast, the affluence of its audience, the intelligence of its writing. What has distinguished the program, however, is its combination of idealism and humanity. At the core of every episode lies a deep appreciation for our humanity, an impassioned concern for the needs of the oppressed and the fierce belief that the good, the right and the true are things worth fighting for.

I wish the same could be said for Commander in Chief (Tuesdays, 9 p.m. ET), ABC’s new hourlong drama about a political independent who becomes the first female president. Like “The West Wing,” “Commander in Chief” boasts at its center a leader who embodies our finest ideals. Vice President MacKenzie “Mac” Allen (Geena Davis) becomes the commander in chief when the current president, Republican Teddy Bridges, suffers a fatal stroke. As president she proceeds with neither the support of the Republicans, who want her to step down, nor the allegiance of the Democrats. Nonetheless, she presides with confidence and grace. Geena Davis, who recently won a Golden Globe for the role, has always shown a wonderful combination of quiet strength and unprepossessing beauty. In the role of the president she comes off as personable, ethical and decisive.

The other engaging performer in “Commander” is Donald Sutherland, who plays the Republican speaker of the house, Nathan Templeton. Sutherland’s Templeton has the mojo of Machiavelli and the tao of Lao Tzu. Maneuvering in the shadows, playing the angles in every situation, Templeton is so deliciously nasty you cannot help paying attention to him.

Would that the same were true of the rest of the show. Allen’s husband, Rod (known as “the First Gentleman”), played by Kyle Secor, is a sad sack who spends most episodes getting in the way. The couple’s grade school child is cute; their teenagers have problems--yawn. Like “Wing,” “Commander” likes to take on such hot-button issues as terrorism or disaster relief; but unlike its peer, “Commander” usually wraps them up so neatly that each episode could come with its own pretty red bow. The problems of our own ordinary lives are never solved this easily; how are we to accept that the president’s dilemmas could be?

Oddly, this show about the first female president seems set on placing her in traditional roles and power relations. It is striking how often we are reminded of the president’s work as wife and mother--it is she who calls for family dinners, brushes her daughter’s hair and is sought to sign her son’s term paper--while her husband worries about his career. Likewise, while Allen is clearly capable, her husband is frequently inserted into the plot as the power behind the throne, the confidant to whom Allen must go for advice and frequent affirmation. It is not believable, and it undermines the show’s basic concept.

John F. Kennedy once said, "The American, by nature, is optimistic. He is experimental, an inventor and a builder who builds best when called upon to build greatly.” Great shows about the presidency are very much like great presidents--they draw us back to our dreams and call upon us to do more. The more our real-world political leaders disappoint, perhaps the greater our need for fictional characters like those on “The West Wing,” who can reassure us that our optimism need not be naïve, and that our childhood visions of an ever more perfect union constitute a crucial experiment always further to be pursued.

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