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The President of These United States: Television Presidents and 21st Century Government

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Benjamin H. Deitchman
April 26, 2019

The White House Press Secretary, Ari Fleischer, while delivering a commencement address in June 2001, provided the graduates and their guests with the most obvious comparison to his first six months as the spokesman for the Administration of President George W. Bush: Press Secretary C.J. Cregg on the critically acclaimed and relatively popular NBC drama The West Wing. A show embedded in fictional national politics, such as The West Wing, provides viewers with a new historical timeline: whereas Central Perk from Friends or County General Hospital on ER could coexist in our contemporary timeline, a show about the White House needs a new history with a unique but familiar set of policy problems to address. For those of us who are students, scholars and practitioners of public administration, the scripted Administrations are fodder for analyses of hypotheticals and a reflections of our governmental realities.

In the opening scene of the first episode of The West Wing, which originally aired on September 22, 1999, the premise is that only White House insiders have familiarity with the acronym POTUS for the President of the United States. Twenty years later POTUS is part of the common lexicon well beyond the Beltway and we are now also accustomed to the insider personal drama of the real life Administration’s staff through the modern media. Shows about the president, however, do not just shape the public’s view of the institutions of power, but also that of leaders themselves. Labour Party politicians, staff members and supporters in the United Kingdom during the era of Prime Minister Tony Blair reveled in the capabilities of The West Wing’s President Bartlet to affect change within his political system and sought to mimic actions across the pond. In the blurring of scripting and policymaking, it is fitting that the current POTUS, Donald Trump, had a primetime reality show that aired contemporaneously on the same network as President Bartlet.

The early 21st century presidencies on television have also reflected the current political zeitgeist. President Bartlet’s impeachment proceedings, government shutdown and campaigns were explainers, counter-arguments and reimagining of scenarios of the Clinton Administration. After the attacks of September 11, 2001, The West Wing also dove into the War on Terror and its domestic impacts. Other fictional presidents, such as David Palmer on the national security drama 24, focused even more extensively on the fear and uncertainty around terrorism.

President Palmer also represented another significant aspect of the national mood in the desire for White House representation from someone other than a white male. As a capable leader portrayed by the serious and resolute Dennis Haysbert, President Palmer first graced television screens within a decade of the presidency of Barack Obama.

Some shows stray deeper from the realities of present-day Washington to facilitate new tensions and insights. The characters on Scandal operate in a political party system where the pro-choice Republican ex-wife of a pro-gun-control Republican president from California is his successor in the White House. On Veep it is purposefully never clear as to the party affiliation of the primary protagonist, Vice President Selina Meyer, who temporarily succeeds her predecessor into the Oval Office.

Although Scandal is a primetime soap opera and Veep is a satirical comedy, both of these shows include story arcs that struggle with constitutional quagmires of the complex party politics that define our Electoral College system of choosing a president: What happens when an assassin’s bullet kills the projected president-elect before the Electoral College electors cast their votes, as happened in Scandal’sSeason 6? What happens when the House of Representatives cannot reach a majority of states for President after an Electoral College tie, as happened in Veep’s Season 5? Drama and comedy respectively, but also a chance to foresee the challenges that could arise in the event one of these constitutional quirks comes to fruition in our far more polarized partisan reality.

Serialized entertainment, whether it comes from a television network, cable channel or streaming service, remains at the center of popular culture. The politics, policies and foibles of Presidents Jed Bartlet of The West Wing, David Palmer of 24, Fitzgerald Grant of Scandal or Selina Meyer of Veep, as dreamed up in the writers’ rooms with expert input, can become part of the national discourse. There are students across the country today procrastinating on their finals By binge watching these storylines. This may not be the ideal mechanism for learning the functions of our government, but it is an opportunity to understand our society and develop our reality.

On The Office, which operated within its contemporary presidency of Barack Obama, character Darryl Philbin stated, “I used to say I wanted to live long enough to see a black president. I didn’t realize how easy that would be. So now I wanna live long enough to see a really, really gay president. Or a super model president. I wanna see all the different kinds of presidents.” Through the magic of television we get to see all the different kind of presidents under different policy scenarios, and decide for ourselves, as citizens and leaders, how to proceed.

Author:Benjamin H. Deitchman is an analyst and author in Atlanta, Georgia. He is on Twitter @Deitchman.

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