Read Stephen's bio and previous columns
February 18, 2008
Matt Santos of ‘The West Wing’: Barack Obama's Fictional Forerunner
Barack Obama's run to
the Democratic presidential nomination may be totally unprecedented in a
multitude of ways. And by real life standards, it is. But the run does
have a nearly exact parallel to a fictional event – namely, the election
on the final season-and-a-half of the TV series "The West Wing."
(A note of disclosure:
This all came to me like a ton of bricks the other night, though I did
subsequently discover that the parallel had been noticed and commented
on by others, including Christopher Hope of the British Daily
Telegraph, the blog Talk Left and posters at various blogs and
message boards. The words and observations below, though are my own.)
After a couple of years
in the wilderness following the exit of creator and primary writer Aaron
Sorkin, when it was widely believed to have jumped the shark, “Wing”
rejuvenated itself near the end of its penultimate season and into its
last one while toggling back and forth
between the primary
White House plot (featuring the final days in the White House of Martin
Sheen's President Bartlett) and the election race to succeed him.
In that race, the top
two Democrats were a top figure in the previous White House (Vice
President Russell, played by Gary Cole), who had seniority and tenure
but lacked the ability to excite the party much at all, and a young
member of Congress (Rep. Matt Santos, played by Jimmy Smits), who made
up for his lack of experience and seniority with youth, sparkling
oratory, an inspirational life story and the novelty of being the first
man of color to seriously contend for the presidency.
Republican frontrunner (Arnold Vinick, played by Alan Alda) was an
older, long-serving senator from a Western state who was slightly but
noticeably more liberal than the GOP at large, and thus found himself
largely at odds with the Republican establishment – a problem he tried
to solve by unconvincingly pandering to the religious right.
I don't have to tell
you that this scenario has repeated itself in real life, with Barack
Obama standing in for Santos, Hillary Clinton for Russell and John
McCain playing the part of Vinick, a character who was pretty clearly
based on McCain in the first place.
The analogy breaks down
in a few places. Santos was running following the eight-year run of a
Democratic, not Republican, administration. And just as with every other
"West Wing" plot after 2001, their universe had no Sept. 11 or Iraq War.
And Santos's running mate was a previous Democratic White House Chief of
Staff, an honor I don't see falling in real life to Leon Panetta, John
Podesta or Erskine Bowles. (Nor do I expect the veep candidate to
suddenly die on election night, a plot twist on “West Wing” necessitated
by the passing of actor John Spencer.)
If the "West
Wing"/real-life parallel keeps up, we're looking at Clinton and Obama
fighting all the way to the convention, which is deadlocked for hours
until the intervention of the previous Democratic president puts Obama
over the top. Then, in a closely contested election that features
numerous red states going blue and vice versa, Obama/Santos narrowly
prevails and takes the White House. I'm not betting on the former
scenario – Bill Clinton casting the tie-breaking vote against Hillary? –
but the former I see as quite plausible.
Obama, in all, is very
faithful to the ethos of "The West Wing" – left-leaning, sure, but much
more about good governance and love of public service than about
ideology. And yes, both are loved most of all by upscale Democrats.
It's not just that
show, though. Obama was endorsed in January by actor Dennis Haysbert,
who played David Palmer, the fictional "first black U.S. president," on
the first few seasons of "24."
That show may have a
reputation for torture and for worship from right-wing figures, but the
Palmer character was a true liberal hero. He was clearly established as
a Democrat, who nearly always did the right thing, foiling numerous
terror attacks and assassination attempts. In fact, Palmer was so
beloved that sportswriter Bill Simmons suggested a few years ago that if
Haysbert had his name legally changed to "David Palmer" and ran for the
White House, he'd vote for him.
Most of all, I applaud
the "West Wing" writers of 2004, for creating an Obama-like character
out of thin air, at a time when liberal was a dirty word and there was
nothing like Obamamania even on the horizon for the Democrats. At a time
when the real Democrats had just resigned
themselves to four more
years of Bush, "The West Wing" saw Obama's ascendence coming way before
anyone else. Sure beats jumping the shark.
North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.
Click here to talk to our writers and
editors about this column and others in our discussion forum.
To e-mail feedback
about this column,
click here. If you enjoy this writer's
work, please contact your local newspapers editors and ask them to carry
This is Column #
Request permission to publish here.