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 In the current Bush administration the benevolent father figure of the Reagan Years has been replaced by an almost inarticulate corporate clone, one who projects an image of the charming son.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 know it.

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.

Stay tuned.

Ralph E. Melcher writes essays on media, politics and psychology in Santa Fe, New Mexico.