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.


Meanwhile, the 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.


© 2008 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 it.

This is Column # SS083. Request permission to publish here.

Op-Ed Writers
Eric Baerren
Lucia de Vernai
Herman Cain
Dan Calabrese
Alan Hurwitz
Paul Ibrahim
David Karki
Llewellyn King
Gregory D. Lee
David B. Livingstone
Nathaniel Shockey
Stephen Silver
Candace Talmadge
Jamie Weinstein
Feature Writers
Mike Ball
Bob Batz
The Laughing Chef
David J. Pollay
Business Writers
Cindy Droog
D.F. Krause