The West Wing this week (January 26, 2005) was a screed on the necessity for politicians to lie in order to get elected. For those of you who haven't been keeping up, the program has moved from depicting the doings in the White House to the campaign to replace President Bartlett. The setting has moved to Iowa, where three Democrats and one Republican are scrambling around trying the get the support of the caucuses. One of the curious features of TV fiction is that it accepts certain social truths as commonplace which would be a scandal if they were introduced into actual political debate. In television drama, it's taken for granted that politicians deceive in order to flatter. It's a ho-hum thing, really. And yet, if during a campaign, one candidate were to say to another, "I know you don't believe that; you're just saying it in order to snooker people into voting for you," it would be a source of gasping headlines. I can't think what this division means other than that we, the people, like to be lied to when it involves flattery but we also like to see ourselves as in the know and therefore scornful of politicians. We use political campaigns to get one and TV melodrama to get the other. And, for the most part, we seem happy with the system.

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I don't like the new development on The West Wing of having President Bartlett descend into paralysis. It's one more instance of sliding into a sob story instead of depending on sharp writing to make the subject matter of the program fascinating. The West Wing is supposed to be about politics. Surely there are enough political issues a fictional White House staff could take up to hold viewer interest. But, we have to remember that the program is a product of Hollywood and not Washington. And Hollywood is addicted to slobby sentimentality. You'd think more people would pay attention to the long-running success of Law and Order. It's obsessive about ripped from the headlines plots, but at least they are plots involving the criminal justice system. So far, we haven't been asked to get wrought up about McCoy's erectile dysfunction. And maybe we can hope we won't.

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A recent family connection has made me far more aware than I used to be of the great population of young actors who are making their way by getting bit parts in movies, spots in commercials and guest appearances on TV series. I was thinking of them last night (November 24, 2004) while watching Suleka Mathew play Leo's nurse on The West Wing. Most of us don't stop to think what a huge event an opportunity like that is in the life of an aspiring actor. Nor do we recognize what a long train of effort it takes to reach that level. Ms. Mathew, who was born in India and raised since early childhood in Canada, made her first appearance in a movie in 1991. She may be best remembered for four episodes of The Dead Zone in which she played Dr. Janet Gibson. I thought she was quite good in her interactions with Leo, and I wish her well -- as I do all the un-recognized actors -- in her quest to get more prominent roles. We should reflect that people in her situation add more to the richness of our entertainment than they're generally given credit for.

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It turns out that Leo of The West Wing is not dead after all. He had a heart attack in the woods at Camp David but he was discovered by the security people and flown to the Bethesda Naval Hospital (November 3, 2004). After rather dicey operations his heart began to beat again on its own, allowing a gaspy conversation with the president, who had been sitting outside his room for hours, neglecting presidential business. The outcome was that Leo convinced the president he needed a new chief of staff and told him who it had to be. C.J. is to be elevated from press secretary to Leo's old job, a rather unusual move. But, then, this is TV world. I'm not sure what kind of chief of staff C.J. will turn out to be but I suppose she could be interesting in the role. The president is trying to solve the Middle East crisis by making so many deals with Congress the Treasury is likely to declare bankruptcy. This. at least. has an air of reality to it. But, I'm not sure Mr. Bartlett is holding our confidence like he once did. I assume most Americans would still rather have him than Mr. Bush, but the gap between them has narrowed a bit.

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Leo of The West Wing  may be done for. Last night (October 27, 2004), in the woods at Camp David, alone, he suffered an agonizing heart attack. And by the following morning no one had found him. The difference between his hard-line stance and the president's flexibility has been widening lately. Just before his stroll in the woods, he had offered his resignation over the president's decision to station American peace-keeping forces in Palestine and, to his astonishment, Bartlett had accepted. You might say that Leo's heart told him that once his position as chief of staff was over, his life was over also. He has been an interesting character over the past years, and a fascinating study in rigidity.

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I had feared that President Bartlett on The West Wing was getting swept up in the terrorist mania. But last night (May 19, 2004), he returned to the character we have come to love, a man who can keep his head when all about him are losing theirs and blaming it on him. The issue is whether the president should blow up somebody in response to an attack on American officials in the Gaza strip, even if the consequences would be disastrous over the long run. Leo, the president's chief of staff, who has also become the chief hawk of the administration -- somebody seems to be modelling him on Dick Cheney -- has announced that there is no long run and has even suggested that the president is suffering a failure of nerve. Leo is  a poor student of political history. Failures of nerve are marked by giving in to what "everybody" wants, not by resisting it. The notion that the only means a president has to provide for national security is to kill somebody, seems to have become a near-religious doctrine in Washington. If this little TV show can suggest that maybe that's not always, in every instance, absolutely true, it will have taken a small step beyond entertainment.

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The reign of terrorism continues unabated on The West Wing. Last night (May 12, 2004) we thought we might lose Donna Moss because her van got blown up in the Gaza Strip. Everyone at the White House ran around looked very tight-jawed. Josh called for killing everyone in categories which probably contain about fifty million people. Now, Josh has gone to Germany to sit beside Donna's bed, where she seems to be sleeping peacefully. But, there's a hint she's not out of the woods yet. Next week complications may arise, in which case there will be calls for even more killing. The president, who, each week, looks increasingly demented -- is this what the presidency does to people? -- is preparing, in a tight-jawed way, to launch something at somebody. He, in effect, tells his military advisors to find him a target. Every now and then I get a terrible feeling that public officials watch programs like this in order to find out what to do.

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The West Wing,  once one of the better dramas on TV, seems to be running out of steam. Last night (April 28, 2004) we had a security breach at the White House, with hordes of lockjawed security people running around looking more important than any human beings have ever had the right to look. Terrorism is becoming a bigger bore than Communism ever was, and we've only been officially (or is it officially?) at war with it for two and a half years. Terrorism, of course, makes it right to do anything, no matter how disgusting. That's a religious doctrine. Last night President Bartlett, normally a nice guy, lied to everyone he has reason to trust in order to stay in cahoots with a brace of lockjaws. That's what terrorism requires us to do. When terrorism rears its head, the lockjaws take over, and if they say, "Shoot your wife in the mouth!" you've got to do it. No questions asked. So far, President Bartlett hasn't been required to shoot his wife or anybody else, but given the way the show is tending, can that be too far off? What happened to sleazy political deals for getting bills passed? They were generally interesting. The lemming tendency of TV producers is more powerful than any other motive, more powerful than even money or ratings, I suspect. When it's the terrorism season you've got to have a terrorism show, and that's all there is to it. The networks may have their own lockjaws who will kill you if you don't.

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