Life Imitating Art: The West Wing Leads The Way

TVGuide.com, courtesy Paul Drinkwater?NBC

TVGuide.com, courtesy Paul Drinkwater/NBC

One of my favourite shows of all time is The West Wing; I am unsure whether my fascination with U.S politics stemmed from my love for this show or vice-versa. In any case, I couldn’t help but be drawn back into the world of the Bartlett administration during the coverage of the recent U.S election, re-watching favourite episodes and understanding more and more the process of the unfolding election. Even here in Australia, coverage of this historic election was widespread. I don’t think our own federal election garnered as much attention as did the Obama/McCain campaigns for the White House. During the initial campaign for the democratic nomination, I didn’t really know all that much about Barack Obama, the truth is I was barracking, in my own small and un-influential way (seeing as how I couldn’t really have a say in this election) for Hilary Clinton. Having studied feminism at university, from its beginnings with the suffragettes through to its current incarnation of third wave feminism, I was excited about the prospect of a woman holding arguably the most powerful job in the world. I wasn’t really ‘briefed’ as the political aides say, on her political standings, platforms or policies, I was more simply excited that she was there fighting it out for the party nomination, this was a huge step forward for The United States and for the world. The fact that she was fighting alongside Barack Obama made it all the more exciting. I felt the same way about Hilary as many African American’s felt about Obama; this could be the culmination and ultimate salvation of centuries of injustice. These two minority representatives garnering support and attention on the world stage, was exhilarating; I felt like I was witnessing something truly life changing.

When Hilary lost the democratic nomination to Obama, it was no great loss to me. Like I said, my support of her was not based on her political policies, in fact I knew little about them except that she was a democrat. I was supporting the idea of her; of what she could represent, and what kind of change she could bring to America and the rest of the world. In this regard, I was happy to throw my support to Obama, and to follow him with the same excitement as I did Hilary, because ultimately, he represented the same thing: a new definition for the representations of power in the Western world.

As the intensity of media coverage of the Obama campaign increased, and seeing Obama on the evening news became a daily occurrence even here in Australia, I began to be reminded of a certain presidential candidate from my old favourite show. Obama’s resemblance in status, circumstance, and even personality was uncanny to that of Jimmy Smits’ Texan congressman Matthew Santos. Young, charismatic family man with two young children seeks the democratic presidential nomination. Refusing to be defined by his ethnicity, he strives to be a voice for all the people of America and not just those who identify with his minority background. Along the way he faces tough competition within his own party from a former White House occupant during the most recent democratic administration. Through his rousing oratory focusing on change and the idealism that there is a lot more that unites Americans than divides them, he wins the nomination after a hard fought convention. He goes on to win the presidency, fighting a long campaign against his much more experienced, Republican war-hero opponent. The script, it seems, could not have been more prophetic.

It was with great delight, then, that I discovered that these similarities were not coincidental. It seems that, when over 4 years ago the writers at The West Wing began to plan for their final two seasons, they modelled their minority presidential candidate on a young, Illinois politician named Barack Obama. I may be behind the 8-ball on this realisation, I found articles on this very subject dated as far back as February when former West Wing writer Eli Attie first spoke of the origins of the Santos story, but it seems during this time Obama was not on my radar. I was still all about Hilary back then, and I somehow, inexplicably, missed the whole thing. If you want to read more about it try here or here, or the numerous other sites that will pop up in a search page.

Watching the Obama campaign was true life reflecting art, and it reminded me of just how politically and socially aware the writers of The West Wing were. Furthermore, it proves to me what great television can be, a vehicle to inspire the impossible, and a forum through which representations of our greatest social desires can be made possible. I am excited to see what Obama will mean for The United States and indeed for Australia, if only there was more West Wing to tip us off as to what the future may hold.

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