Washington

Beyond the fringe

Andrew Phillips October 25 1999
Washington

Beyond the fringe

Andrew Phillips October 25 1999

Beyond the fringe

Washington

Andrew Phillips

The most talked-about new TV show in Washington is, not surprisingly, The West Wing, the NBC series that tries to do for politics what ER did for medicine. The first few episodes featured a terrorist attack, an ethics crisis and a president (played by Martin Sheen) hopped up on painkillers. Far from hyping reality, though, the producers have obviously toned things down: the only illicit sex involves a presidential aide (Rob Lowe) and takes place outside the White House.

In fact, The West Wing looks like an NFB documentary compared with the odd parade of real-life characters vying for attention in the silly season of U.S. politics (a season that sometimes seems to last about 365 and a quarter days a year). A washed-up wrestler (Jesse Ventura of Minnesota) runs a midsize state.

A megalomaniac billionaire (Donald Trump of New York and Adantic City) gets a solid week of frenzied publicity for announcing in the pages of The Wall Street Journal that “America needs a president like me.”

An actor and legendary lothario (Warren Beatty of Hollywood) flirts with a run for the White House. By comparison, a talk-show host who opines that Hider should have been left to rampage through Europe (Patrick Buchanan of Washington) oozes gravitas.

Its hardly news, of course, that celebrity can be translated into political clout in America. Ronald Reagan proved that two decades ago. What’s new is that the worlds of politics and entertainment have become so intertwined that it’s hard to know where one ends and the other begins. As litde as 18 months ago, it was notable that a movie, Wag the Dog, uncannily mirrored a real-life presidential sex scandal. The West Wing turns that conceit into a weekly plot device.

Celebrities have two things that would-be politicians crave: name recognition and access to lots of money. But even in the United States, and even now, that doesn’t necessarily carry them very far. Fame may get them onto the political stage, but most quickly fall off.

Trump is already headed that way. The Donald, as his first ex-wife, Ivana, forever dubbed him, clearly has nothing useful to say. So far, we know that he won’t shake hands (“a barbaric custom”), thinks Oprah Winfrey would make a good running mate, and could be married again “in 24 hours” if a First Lady is required. It’s all about ego, as a quick tour around

Manhattan makes painfully obvious. If you miss the marbled Trump Tower on the east side, don’t despair; there’s always Trump International Hotel and Tower on the west side, not to mention Trump Palace, Trump International Plaza, Trump Place and the soon-toopen Trump World Tower. And even with all that, he seems oddly passé, a retread from the arrogant ’80s. The man who embodies the spirit of the late ’90s is Bill Gates, with his $ 100 billion spun out of silicon, not Trump with his billion-andchange in bricks and mortar.

So it’s not just fame, but what you do with it. By that measure, two of the new political celebrities are doing better than it first appears. Ventura may act like a clown (telling Playboy he’d like to be reincarnated as a size 38-DD bra), but many U.S. politicians take him very seriously indeed. Rhetoric aside, he has governed his state in a startlingly normal way: cutting taxes and streamlining state government. Political professionals are trouping to St. Paul from all over the country to plum his secret— how to get voters to pay attention at a time when no one seems to care about politics.

The other person who is using his platform with surprising effectiveness is one of the easiest to dismiss: Warren Beatty. His speech to a recent Hollywood gathering was notable for saying things that have become almost unsayable in the selfcongratulatory climate of the late ’90s. That many are being left behind amid unprecedented prosperity. That Bill Clinton’s Democrats, traditionally the party of social progress, have traded in their principles for electability at all costs. That money rules the U.S. political system, spreading like a cancer so that “the patient—American democracy—is in mortal danger of dying on the table.”

Beatty’s is an authentic liberal voice. His message is hardly original, but it resonates because it has been absent for so long from the American debate. No real politician wants to rain on the parade of public prosperity. Only someone with the celebrity power to command the presence of the media, but little to lose if they turn away, is willing to say it. Beatty’s already made a movie about speaking uncomfortable truths in politics (Bulworth). He may yet run for president. Or he may find another way to get out his message. A guest spot on The West Wing might be just the trick.