The Virtual President
Ronald Reagan played to the desire of Americans to regard their
leaders in the way that young children see their parents; as benevolent,
reassuring gods. Bill Clinton, on the other hand, betrayed our trust by showing
us he was a little too fallible, a little too much like us. In the current Bush
administration the benevolent father figure of the Reagan Years has been
replaced by an almost inarticulate corporate clone, one who projects an image of
the charming son. People seem to like him, but polls indicate that they don't
entirely trust him, and may even feel some relief in the knowledge that he's not
really the person in charge. Ronald Reagan remained highly popular long after
people thought he had lost touch with the daily reigns of government. The Junior
Bush has never really given the impression that he's the one in charge, or that
he's even particularly smart. The best thing people have to say about him is
that his meetings happen on time. Many people think he's a really nice guy to
invite to a barbecue, but it's a good thing for all of us that Dick Cheney's the
guy in the driver's seat.
The father figure that we yearn for in a president is now located at
The West Wing located in Hollywood, CA. For the first time in history we
have a Virtual President of the United States in direct competition with the
real one. He is President Jed Bartlett, played by actor Martin Sheen, and he's a
Democrat. This is no small thing. The West Wing is currently the most
respected drama series on prime time television. It has a time slot right after
Survivor. It has some of the best script writers in the business, and
they aren't reluctant to make their political sentiments known. While the
so-called Commander-in-Chief parades as road man for the Chairman Cheney
show, President Bartlett conducts serious discussions on questions of social
policy. While Dubya and his spinners (in charge of explaining away the
President's verbal gaffs and contradictions) bewilder normally astute reporters
with double talk, The West Wing takes coherent positions, while
presenting both sides of the issues. While Dubya seals himself in a well spun
cocoon (for which he doesn't have the excuse of Alzheimer's disease), The
West Wing tries to make the whole political process more accessible. While
Dubya earns the undying gratitude of corporate fatheads, The West Wing
takes home Emmys and gathers increasingly high ratings.
A friend of mine recently expressed the fear that Americans would get
so enthralled by the virtual democracy that they wouldn't notice that the real
one had vanished. This is certainly a valid concern. Television is after all the
most effective tool for social control ever designed, and it functions chiefly
by diverting our attention from issues of real import.
However, Hollywood is a constituency like any other. It has always
been a breeding ground for liberalism and a refuge for social reformers. No
accident that this was one of the first places congress went hunting for
communists during the McCarthy era. Ultimately Hollywood understands that in
order to succeed it must give at least a cursory nod to people's authentic
concerns and feelings, although too often those feelings are trivialized. With
the rise of all sorts of independent media since the Reagan Years a sea change
has occurred in the relationship of the media business with real politics. In
order to keep market share one must maintain an edge, and as tools become more
available and widely distributed the edge can be stolen by people from all
levels of the digital world.
In the Reagan Years people were enthralled with the small town fantasy
of The Waltons, representing a world that, if it had ever truly existed,
had even then largely been left behind. The Republican world, in spite of this
fact, continues to look forward to eternal prosperity in a planned community,
firmly gated to protect its moral purity. This pretty much sums up the dream of
The Waltons (which is still in reruns on Christian television). The end
of the Reagan era coincided with the rise of a counter-image in popular culture.
The drama of the perfect family was replaced by the dysfunctional family sitcom.
Honored films like American Beauty and Happiness, and popular
artists like Eminem actively challenge the homogenized image of middle-class
contentment. Reality television is quickly replacing the news, and the news has
come more and more to resemble fantasy. On the radio and the internet,
established industries are battling the forces of popular innovation on a number
of fronts, including recorded music and the rights to low band frequencies.
Hollywood is no longer the only game in town, and it is intelligent enough to
The previous presidential administration actively and successfully
courted Hollywood, quite openly inviting it into the real White House. Now that
the Democratic administration has been deposed, Hollywood still understands
where its friends are, and it knows its power to influence public opinion. The
advisory staff of The West Wing is largely made up of former Clinton
staffers and these are people passionately devoted to the world of politics.
Rather than replacing reality, The West Wing has become a parallel
reality representing the voice of the opposition on a platform more widely
viewed and more effectively presented than anything on C-SPAN. Taking the long
view, is this any less real than the presidency itself, as it is continually
presented to us through layers of spin and obfuscation?
Society has become so preoccupied with the production of the spectacle
that our political future will be no doubt determined by the battle between
different versions of reality as presented on television. "The battle for the
minds of North America will be fought in the video arena, the Videodrome,"
pronounces one of my favorite movie characters, Brian O'Blivion, in the film
Videodrome by David Cronenberg. In a contest between Hollywood and the
ultimately regressive powers of the right, my bet is solidly behind Hollywood.
In the study of history, one sees that the center of world
civilization has continually shifted to the West; from India to the Middle East,
to Egypt, to Greece, to Rome, to Spain, to England, to North America. If the
trend holds, the next shift is toward the Pacific Rim. Media empires and the big
Hollywood studios have until the recent past been controlled by business
interests based largely on Wall Street. The purchase of major studios by the
Japanese, and the rise of new media wealth from a computer revolution based in
the West, has led to a shift in the control equation. The media images we see
are no longer as strictly controlled by fat men with cigars and suits on the
East Coast. There are new images coming out of the West, from over the Pacific,
from the developing world, from Los Angeles ghettoes, from Asia and the places
where civilization was born. We will soon be given an indication of how far the
alignment has shifted. The Academy Awards are a barometer that measures the
shifts in America's sense of itself. Will the honors in 2000 go to a largely
recycled film about the fall of the Roman Empire or to a brilliantly conceived
masterpiece filmed by a Chinese American director in Mandarin?
The Puritans, Europeans and their descendents built the power of an
American empire out of global commerce and the resources of the land. Now it's
the immigrants from the east and the south and the west who will transform this
empire into something that reflects once again the universal human values that
inspire the world. All truly great presidents have spoken eloquently in terms of
inclusion rather than isolation, of embracing the world rather than protecting
us from it. In the end this will be the true measure of the presidency, both
real and virtual.
Ralph E. Melcher writes essays on media, politics and psychology in
Santa Fe, New Mexico. http://www.well.com/user/melcher.
© CTheory. All Rights Reserved