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Jeb Bartlet for president

‘We live in the time where we have fictitious election results that elect a fictitious president’, said Michael Moore at the 2003 Academy Awards. Nothing has happened yet. This is limbo time, the time of pregnant, swirling maybes, the time between the axe’s lift and its fall. I write these words in this time and you will read them with me in that time, the time when all the maybes will be done-and-dusted. The television has been full of photo opportunities and party political puffery. Radio ripples with sound bites, each talkback caller more phoney-stoogey than the last. The politicians all want us, unless we’re in a safe seat. (One possible variant of the Chinese curse ‘may you live in interesting times’ is ‘may you live in a safe Labor seat’. Punished by one side and ignored by the other, your roads will crumble, your schools will fall down and your member will sit comfortably till eternity.)

So I have started watching The West Wing on DVD and cable. I missed it when it first came on Nine, and I regret that, because it is great. Terry Pratchett, that novelist-magician, talks of alternate universes, and in another universe, one that is looking increasingly attractive, the President of the United States (or Potus, as the staffers call him acronymically) is Jeb Bartlet, or perhaps more compellingly, Martin Sheen. He is the veteran of Apocalypse Now, the Method actor who did drugs and wigged out generously for us, all on Coppola’s merciless camera. Having taken the uneasy ride with the rest of the babyboomers, Sheen has now become their comfort zone.

 The first episode of The West Wing is utterly satisfying. Potus doesn’t appear until close to the end, where he has one of the most effective entries ever accorded a lead role: he charges into a room full of hubristic religious righters bullying his people and corrects their recital of the First Commandment. We learn that when he fell off his bike at the beginning of the program, it was because he was angry with the lobby group that is in ‘real life’ one of the ‘real’ Potus puppeteers. The West Wing is as comforting as a cuppa, a meditation on proper governance and a world that though imperfect, is at least not a warmonger’s playpen. The fictitious President Bartlet is a clever statesman capable of reflection and magnanimity; he even repents and changes his mind about over-punishing Syria for an act of terrorism. Unlikely to happen with the real fictitious President.
Which brings me to that final bastion of local political larrikinism, The Chaser Decides (ABC, Thursdays, 9:30pm). It was uncomfortably funny to see one of the cast, resplendent in cardinal’s garb, attempting to persuade menacingly mute Tony Abbott into a shared photo opportunity as a reminder in case Tony ‘forgot’ another meeting with an archbishop. I’m pleasantly surprised that the Chaser is even allowed these days: it takes me back to the halcyon days of satire when people like Max Gillies reigned on the box. John Clarke still holds up the unspeakable to some form of condign ridicule on Thursdays in The 7.30 Report, (is Thursday understood to be the day that the lefties are allowed a small run off the leash?) but the atmosphere at the ABC has been too scared-careful for too long. With boards full of inquisitors waiting for every form of bias to be ‘balanced’, journalists are pretty much stifled, no longer taking the kind of mickey that a real democracy allows.

It reminds me of the time I worked in a very posh school. It was the 1970s. The nuns were good people, but the school board was infested with racists who demanded that a South African government propaganda film had to be shown to the students every time they saw an anti-apartheid documentary called Last Grave at Dimbazi. You might remember it: it was about those fictitious Bantu ‘homelands’ that had scandalous rates of infant mortality. There is a way of dealing with this: you show the propaganda video and halt it at every lie, correcting it with the facts. It was an exhaustive and exhausting process. It hampered a good social studies curriculum.

Liars and bullies prevail by simply wearing out the good people. It has been one of the most dishonourable victories of the economic rationalists over the last 20 years: to make decent folks reinvent the wheel over and over again, forcing them to return to first principles all the time so that the public conversation never becomes visionary and hopeful. To many, truth is certainly now stranger than fiction: it has been transmogrified into alienness by the reiterated fictions of those whose interests are served by lies. Jeb Bartlet is the ideal President, both for those who wish George W. Bush were more like him, and for those who believe that he is. The fictitious presidents intersect at so many points that the cosmos must be laughing. Or crying.

And here in Australia it is Spring—windy, thundery, unsettled, just like people. Time seems to hold its breath for a moment. When I read this again, the axe will have fallen, maybe even (God forbid) on the Tarkine.   

Juliette Hughes is a freelance writer.



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