The presidents of pop culture

The deep roots of my adoration for politics are well documented here, and this year marks a very special event in the election calendar as it is, of course, a presidential election year, and every four years since childhood I’ve been all aflutter with delight over the prospect of 10 full months of glorious electoral politics. Of course, campaigning really began in early 2015, and we’ve already watched fortunes wane and wax while a chunk of the Republican field drops like flies, but now, as primaries really get going and communities start getting into it, we’ll see the full flower of democracy in action, and the sheer ugliness that this country can bring to politics, too.

In honour of the election year, I’m doing a re-watch of The West Wing, viewing an episode a day and writing about it on my Tumblr until the California primary (the number of episodes and days ’til the primary match up almost exactly). Some writeups will be brief, others will be long, some will explore the mechanics and characterisation of the show itself, while others will take on ties with real-world politics. I always like to say that The West Wing has an episode for everything, and it certainly feels like it sometimes, so I’ll be taking a closer look at that and exploring why that is.

I do this not simply because I’m always up for an excuse to re-watch the show, but because I am fascinated by the presidency in pop culture. Scandal, Madam Secretary, and House of Cards are all airing or streaming as the case may be with very different iterations of what the presidency looks like, and the kinds of people who inhabit it, and they provide insight into how we think about the presidency in the United States. The nation is a world power — some nationalists argue that it is the world power, which makes the president not just head of state but ‘leader of the free world,’ a title with some troubling implications — and the president has tremendous clout.

Pop culture counterparts do too, not just in the landscapes of their own shows but in the popular conceptualisation of what the presidency means. Whether it’s a scheming, underhanded, diabolical man like Frank Underwood with his relentless quest for power or the idealistic but surprisingly steely President Josiah Barlet, presidents inhabit all sorts of personalities. Some feel cold and distant, figureheads that are extremely self-conscious and aware of their roles, while others, like Fitz, feel more personal (in addition to irritating — someone impeach that man already).

Television viewers in the US are of course driven by narratives they think of as romantic and glamorous — thus we have programmes about firefighters, daring surgeons, police officers, and politicians, but not garbage handlers, steelworkers, and maids. Well, Devious Maids was allegedly about maids, but really it was about stereotyped gross caricatures of maids, designed to play upon the popular imagination of ‘spicy Latinas’ and what those household servants are really up to — and notably, in the end it was also about the glamorised lives of the wealthy and powerful, because they’re the ones who can afford to have housekeepers, as a general rule.

We don’t see the lives of ordinary people because Hollywood assumes, probably correctly, that we don’t want to see them. But the lives we do see aren’t necessarily realistic either, and nowhere does that hold more true than within the walls of the fictional White House, a place where presidents have time for constant philandering, can successfully hide a major chronic illness, are able to retain a strange sort of sinister ruthlessness that allows them to engage in moments of casual cruelty like Underwood’s unforgettable act in the opening of the House of Cards pilot.

The White House is a sacred place in the popular imagination and pop culture, the symbol of the presidency and the heart of US culture itself — there’s a reason the news refers to political decrees and comments coming ‘from the White House,’ and not ‘from the Office of the President’ or ‘from the president’s press secretary.’ There’s a reason reporters jostle on the lawn for position in front of the iconic building during broadcasts, and why it’s used as visual shorthand in reporting and discussion of the presidency, with the Oval Office in particular playing an iconic role.

I grew up wanting to be president, and I know that the same holds true for some of my fellows as well, even as we knew that the odds were likely against us — there’ve been less than 50, after all, and until very recently indeed they were rather lacking in deviation from a very limited norm. It was shocking when a Catholic was elected, let alone a Black man. Yet, I became disillusioned by the real world of US politics very quickly, because politics is messy and unpleasant at the best of times, and horrific at the worst.

It is only in pop culture that the myth of the presidency endures, that even when presidents are terrible people, the dignity of the office remains intact — and more often, the White House is the site of heartening idealism that just isn’t realistically achievable in the real world, but certainly looks nice to viewers who want to believe that it doesn’t always have to be this way.

Image: West Wing, Andrew Booth, Flickr