Tuesday, September 02, 2008

A Tale Of Three Series

This isn't exactly how I planned to return to Blogging after an unplanned hiatus for most of the summer. I was working on a post that at least partially dealt with my "discovery" of a fifty year old TV series and how it underlines something that's missing in modern TV. But real world events have overtaken my own aims and the result is just too good not to blog about. (Before I start on this one I should mention that as a Canadian I don't have a dog in this fight, although like all but the most right wing Canadians my sympathies lean toward the Democratic party, primarily because the policies advocated by the Democrats are closer to the policies that Canadians hold dear, like Medicare.)

John McCain's decision to select Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his Vice-Presidential nominee completed the real world electoral picture for the 2008 season. It is an electoral picture that has similarities to three different TV series of the last few years. The three series are 24, Commander In Chief, and The West Wing.

Let's start off with Barack Obama and 24. This is a pretty obvious one. The first season of the series featured Dennis Haysbert as David Palmer, the presumptive Democratic nominee for President, and the first African-American to be nominated for the post. There has been some suggestion, at least partially from Dennis Haysbert, that the character of David Palmer might have had some sort of impact one making Obama's candidacy "acceptable" to the American public. According to a TVSquad article, which quotes an AP wire service report, Haysbert said, "My portrayal of David Palmer may have helped open the eyes of the American people. I mean the American people across the board – from the poorest to the richest, every color and creed, every religious base – to prove the possibility there could be an African-American president, a female president, any type of president that puts the people first." Yeah, I know, it sounds like a reach to me – and to a lot of the people who commented on the story at the time – too. Still, setting aside any possible influence that Haysbert's portrayal of David Palmer may have had on the sensibilities of the American public, there is no doubt that 24 at least suggested the potential of a qualified and charismatic African-American candidate winning the nomination for a major political party by, not to mention winning the presidency. (And before anyone mentions Jesse Jackson, while he was certainly a viable candidate for the nomination in 1984 and 1988, it is questionable how viable he would have been considered in the general election or how broadly based his support was.) In fact there are aspects of the David Palmer character, particularly his reliance on his younger brother Wayne as a political advisor (revealed in later seasons) that would really make the character seem closer to the real world Kennedys than any current politician.

The nomination of the little known Sarah Palin as the Republican Vice-Presidential candidate brings another show into the mix. Commander In Chief brought Geena Davis back to TV starring as Mackenzie Allen, a former member of the House of Representatives who is a Republican who was so at odds with her party that she ran as an Independent. After two terms in Congress she left to become Chancellor of the University of Richmond. She's a specialist in Middle East Affairs as well as a lawyer. From there she is selected by the Republican nominee for President to be his running mate, even though her principal attributes for the job are the fact that she can bring women's votes to his campaign and can balance the ticket because of her moderate, even independent stance on the issues. Of course everything changes after she's elected when President Teddy Bridges dies of a stroke. She is the Vice President that no one wants to see elevated to the big job and suddenly there she is. To compare, Sarah Palin is the one term governor of Alaska, who before becoming Governor was the mayor of Wassilla, a city of 9,000 people. She ran for Governor on a platform of cleaning up government in spite of the fact that the state had previously been governed by a Republican administration.

Of course the big comparison is to The West Wing. It has been stated by series writer and producer Eli Attie that the character of Matt Santos was directly based on the then new Senator from Illinois Barack Obama. There is also a suggestion that based on their perceived maverick stance within the Republican Party that Arnold Vinnick was at least partially based upon John McCain. The latter assertion is far more tenuous than the link between Obama and Santos, to the degree that I don't think that it has ever truly been articulated by anyone associated with the series, and there are a lot of people (mostly those holding a liberal perspective it must be mentioned) writing since McCain's involvement in the current Republican nomination process who have state that McCain is no Vinnick. It doesn't really matter that much of course; it is sufficient to note that both Vinnick and McCain have been perceived as outsiders within their own political party.

The Santos campaign nominated former Labor Secretary and White House Chief of Staff Leo McGarry as Vice President. Viewers may have thought that this was a case of Josh Lyman pushing his former boss (and long time family friend who Josh had come to see as a substitute father as well as a mentor) into one final bit of public service – he had after all suggested Leo as a possible replacement for John Hoynes during the second Bartlett campaign. However it is made clear that Leo's primary role in the Santos campaign and a coming Santos administration has a lot to do with McGarry's knowledge of the working of power and his strengths in foreign affairs and other areas where even a three term Congressman would be deficient. On the Republican side, Arnold Vinnick chose the two term Governor of West Virginia, Ray Sullivan to be his running mate. Sullivan is chosen by Vinnick largely to balance the ticket ideologically with Sullivan appealing to the conservative, religious, pro-life base of the Republican Party, a constituency that Vinnick's moderate Republicanism had alienated.

So where does that put us with regard to the current real-life political campaign? Well the selection of Joe Biden to be Barack Obama's running mate is fairly obvious. As was the case with Leo McGarry and Matt Santos, Biden brings a wealth of experience, particularly in the area of foreign relations, to compliment Obama's inexperience in those areas. Similarly, Sarah Palin's great strength is with the Republican base – she's an evangelical, life time member of the NRA, who espouses an extremely strong pro-life position and strong family values. Even if McCain's weakness with the Republican base is overestimated – which I suspect it probably is – Sarah Palin probably helps in this area.

Of course the real world complexities of selecting a running mate go far beyond what a TV series like The West Wing is able to portray. Joe Biden not only helps the Obama campaign with his perceived lack of experience, he also strengthens the ticket in Pennsylvania and some of the other battlegrounds states and is seen as helping with the perception that Obama is something of an elitist, a perception that can hurt the party's support with blue collar voters. As for Palin, she doesn't add any states to the Republican side of the tally – both Alaska where she was Governor and Idaho, where she was born, are solidly Republican – but supposedly she is meant to attract disaffected women who supported Hillary Clinton, and has strength with blue collar workers because her husband is a commercial fisherman and a member of the United Steelworkers. (For the record, I think this is a crock; Palin is about as likely to attract disaffected Hillary voters with her pro-life, anti-sex education needed, pro-gun rhetoric as a big plate of moose burgers is likely to attract a pack of roving vegans. Personally I think the selection is a disaster for the Republicans which is fine with me. But that's me being political, and after all this isn't my fight.)

Oh, there's one other political-television link which I actually hesitate to mention, but I'm not the first to note this and I probably won't be the last. Take a look at this

Sarah Palin and Tina Fey – separated at birth?

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