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The World’s Woes, As Soap Opera

Reality has invaded the West Wing — or, rather, “The West Wing.”

Yes, America’s favorite political soap opera, after two years of inhabiting an alternative dimension where Democrats still ruled the roost and conflicts were always resolved with a hug, decided in its season premiere last week to catch up with the real world. Suddenly America was at war in the Middle East, the economy was falling into recession and a Republican president was in the Oval Office, hard at work infuriating the Arab world and alienating Europe. Now that’s reality TV.

It was entertaining, but you couldn’t help feeling the show was just a celluloid reflection of the dismal state of the union. Consider the plot line: A Republican is handed the presidency without a mandate from the voters. Drawn into conflict by events that originated before his time and beyond his understanding, the new commander-in-chief unleashes the dogs of war to show the world that the U.S. of A. will bend to no one. While red America rallies around flag and country, blue America rudely learns that a man they still don’t think belongs in the White House has shrewdly redefined patriotism. All of sudden, the war on terrorism is the only show in town.

The curtain rises with the conservative Republican speaker of the House, Glenn Walken — played to an oafish T by John Goodman — assuming the presidency at a time of national crisis. The elected president, Jed Bartlett, played by Martin Sheen, is voluntarily stepping aside after his daughter was kidnapped by terrorists. Since there is no vice president — he resigned because of a sex scandal last season — the speaker succeeds.

Within hours, however, the press breaks a story — also set up last season — that an Arab politician from the fictional nation of Kumar, supposedly lost in a plane crash months ago, had actually been assassinated on orders from the White House. The first daughter’s kidnapping, it’s hinted, is payback for the assassination. Now the chain reaction begins: terrorists strike Turkey, the newly installed president orders a squadron of F-14s and F-18s to hit Kumar — and off we go again, back to war in the Persian Gulf.

Sure, that’s a lot to happen in one television hour. Then again, Bush v. Gore felt at times like a network fantasy, and look what those chads wrought.

The departure of “The West Wing” from its Emmy-winning format was, in a very American way, the show’s way of saying: “This is what your president looks like from inside the White House. Scary, huh?”

Of course, we’ll likely never know what it was like in the real West Wing in mid-September 2001. Nor, for that matter, can we truly understand what was going through the minds of Clinton White House officials as the Supreme Court ordered them to hand the keys over to a man they were sure hadn’t fairly won the job and wasn’t qualified for it.

Yet, even if these last two years have made many cynical about presidents on television, there seems to be something immediate and captivating about television on presidents. After all, aren’t the men leading our country just characters on a very large national stage?

The advantage of television, of course, is that the script can always be rewritten. In the real White House there seems to be no easy plot line to take us out of our current quagmire.

Those celluloid Democrats can move back into the Oval Office just as soon as the shattered Bartlett reinstates himself. The real-life Democrats face a much steeper path back to power. Though Americans increasingly seem to share the Democrats’ dim view of President Bush’s skills, he’s likely to win another four years unless the opposition can unite around somebody the voters trust more.

Here again, “The West Wing” offers a televised mirror. As the situation spirals downward, the unelected president damns the torpedoes with moral conviction while the sidelined Bartlett stoically envisages the decline of the Republic and the death of his daughter — with the worst perhaps yet to come. With the world angry at America and our boys getting killed every day in Iraq, the show’s parallels in the real world are not hard to imagine.

Are we, the show seems to ask viewers, going to sit by like the resigned Bartlett, passively watching as the American public is bamboozled? Are those of us who think we know better going to sit by, somehow exempting ourselves from action, or are we going to put our money and minds where our mouths are?

Many Americans feel they’ve given up a lot in these last two years, and yet don’t feel one iota safer. We’re stuck in Iraq and Afghanistan, our economy is a mess, our business leaders are corrupt, our health care system is sick, our kids’ education system is failing — and the very real terrorist threat that confronts us is met by a color-coded “danger” chart aimed more at talk-show fodder than serious defense policy.

If “The West Wing” is any guide, the viewing public is starting to tune into the dismal state of the union. The show is definitely on. It remains to be seen how many are watching.

Oren Rawls is opinion editor of the Forward.

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