It was a bad week for the Bartlett White House. It was a far worse week for the Bush White House.
Last Sunday, on television’s “The West Wing,” Martin Sheen, also known as President Barlett, found his White House in disarray after his senior advisor admitted to being a high-profile national security leak and was fired.
Meanwhile, the real White House found itself in much worse chaos this week as it prepared for senior officials to be indicted for their alleged roles in the Valerie Plame leak investigation.
Friday found Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, indicted on five felony counts: two charges of perjury, two false statement charges and obstruction of justice. Libby resigned from the White House and prepared to face the charges.
The irony of this art-imitating-life situation was magnified by its timing. Filmed months in advance, “The West Wing” episode aired just days before the special prosecutor announced the charges in his two-year-long investigation.
On the surface the similarities between the fictional and real leak are uncanny; the show simply appears to have taken a page from the “Law & Order” playbook with its plots “ripped from the headlines.” Still, there remains a crucial difference between the real White House’s scandal and the fake White House’s leak involving a classified military spacecraft.
“The West Wing” leak scandal is everything that the real leak scandal is not. The show has always been about idealization of the shortfalls of today’s politics, now even extending it to scandals. Where there is understandable motivation and even sympathy with the leaker on “The West Wing,” there is no such nobility in the actual leak investigation. Revealing a covert CIA agent’s identity – as retaliation for her husband bringing to light flaws in the administration’s case for the Iraq war – isn’t exactly the feel-good story of the year.
Whereas the leaker in “The West Wing” was immediately fired, rather than have a lengthy investigation drag on, those involved in the Plame case have been the target of a two-year investigation. And claims of full cooperation from the White House appear to fall flat when the vice president’s chief of staff is charged with lying to a grand jury and the FBI.
On “The West Wing” the leaker is quickly dismissed by the president to face the consequences of his actions, where those in the real White House waited until indictments were handed down.
The point isn’t to opine about how superior a fictional scripted West Wing can seem to the real one. The irony is that, once again, “The West Wing” becomes the idealization of the politics we wish we had in America. When it first appeared “The West Wing” was often described as an “idealized Clinton White House” inspired by conversations that staffers wish they could have had. And for several years it has withered complaints of being a glorified liberal “Left Wing.”
Last week witnessed something even more remarkable about the show. No longer is it just a liberal idealization of the presidency. Now it symbolizes something even more surprising. “The West Wing” has become the scandal the Bush White House wishes it could have.
-The writer, a senior majoring in political communication, is a Hatchet columnist.