On Screen, Bill's Better Self

Hollywood's would-be president

As William Jefferson Clinton’s presidency draws to a close, I’ve been thinking a lot about William Wilson.

Wilson, a creation of Edgar Allan Poe, is a cad pursued down the years and over European borders by his virtuous doppelgänger. To be plagued by a normal doppelgänger-a supernatural humanoid who looks exactly like you, assumes your name, and wants to replace you-must be annoying enough, but a virtuous doppelgänger! who wants to help you become a better person!! This moralistic stalker, this supreme party pooper, first exposes poor evil Wilson as a cardsharp at college. Then, reportedly, he "thwarted my ambition at Rome, my revenge at Paris, my passionate love at Naples...my avarice in Egypt." Nag, nag, nag. The climax of the tale makes clear what we have already surmised, that Paragon Wilson is Malefactor Wilson’s conscience. But, earlier in the story, a subtler idea was suggested: "I secretly felt that I feared him, and could not help thinking the equality which he maintained so easily with myself, a proof of his true superiority; since not to be overcome cost me a perpetual struggle." In his heart, the scoundrel finds virtue more powerful than evil, and knows the doppelgänger to be the imaged sum of his own best possibilities.

Therefore, let us pity President Clinton who has had not one but several virtuous doppelgängers pursuing him and seeking to shame him in thousands of cities throughout this country, and in a few overseas, too. Nor is there any anodyne in the fact that his phantom doubles chase him not through the three-dimensional world we breathe in but only across movie screens and TV monitors, for our chief executive knows better than anybody that Image rules. And should he turn on his doubles, as the maddened William Wilson turned on his, and slay them, he would not be killing his own conscience but only the embodied disappointment felt by an entertainment industry located in a town of dreams situated within a city of angels.

Why the disappointment?

Hollywood invariably supports liberal candidates, but Clinton suggested during his 1992 campaign that he would go further than most in ending discrimination against gays, fostering programs to cure aids, improving the health-care system, promoting women’s rights, maintaining the legality of abortion, ending the embargo on Cuba, and countering tyrannies around the world-all heroic measures in the eyes of Hollywood. On a less quantifiable level, Clinton’s "style" seemed right to Hollywood. I mean, which of the following Democrats would look most at ease schmoozing with Barbra, Sharon, Alec: Jimmy Carter, Michael Dukakis, or Bill Clinton? And the rumors and gossip about Clinton’s private life only served to confirm his image as someone hip enough for Hollywood, though of course that private life would have to stay private for the rest of the country.

Eight years of "triangulation" later, the president presides over an economy that seems a cornucopia and a Democratic Party that bears a striking resemblance to a slightly liberalized Republican Party (a party that, say, Nelson Rockefeller would feel at home in). But most of his more radical promises have floated away into the ether, and his private life is not only exposed but made an object of ridicule in the monologues of talk-show hosts. How does Clinton now stand with Hollywood liberals?

The answer may be found Wednesday nights at 9 p.m. on NBC, and it’s called "The West Wing," created by the writer Aaron Sorkin (A Few Good Men). Not a movie à clef or a satire or a celebration of the Clinton presidency, the series is, for all its slickness and snap and vigor, a sigh of regret over what the Clinton presidency might have been. It is a loving rebuke, and here is how it is made: the show’s "president," Josiah Bartlet (played by Martin Sheen with unshakable dignity) is Bill Clinton’s ideological doppelgänger but in every other way seems to be Clinton’s opposite. It’s as if Sorkin were speculating that Clinton’s agenda could only be realized if his character and domestic circumstances were reversed.

Bartlet’s wife is a supremely liberated, politically canny woman, but she never serves as her husband’s hatchet woman. Why should she? She has her own career away from politics. His daughter is a college-bound young lady who sometimes gets annoyed at her father’s fussing but knows she will never read a scandalous story about him in the newspapers. And why would she? Bartlet is as privately virtuous as he is politically progressive. On his staff is a political consultant, not a promiscuous cynic named Dick Morris but a strong and scrupulous woman played by Moira Kelly (fresh from playing strong and scrupulous Dorothy Day on the big screen). Rob Lowe as the deputy communications director, with his fresh-faced youthfulness and idealism, may suggest George Stephanopoulos, but this is a Stephanopoulos never so outraged by and alienated from his boss that he would write a memoir denouncing him. And why would he? Having at first compromised his liberal principles to appease the right-wing opposition and unable to sleep at nights because of this, Bartlet, in the hinge episode of last season, announces a new, unabashedly liberal agenda while his staff beams with pride and pledges "to serve at the pleasure of the president."

And how does America, the America that once elected Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, react to this purified, uncompromised liberal program? It loves it! Everybody loves it! The president’s approval rating skyrockets. Republican senators fume but mainstream Americans support Bartlet unabashedly.

This is not political naiveté on Sorkin’s part but show business savvy. He knows that Americans are perfectly willing to embrace political figures in fiction who might give them pause in real life. They favor strong, decisive heroes regardless of the politics that decisiveness serves. Bartlet, outmaneuvering his right-wing enemies, is like President Harrison Ford punching out the terrorists in Air Force One.

Sex, the roiling distraction and near-derailment of the Clinton administration, is nowhere near the center of "The West Wing," with its conjugally irreproachable president and workaholic staffers (who are the show’s real heroes). But another Sorkin project, the film that now seems the prototype of "The West Wing," The American President, directed by Rob Reiner, has sexual romance at its heart. Here, the president (Michael Douglas), an unphilandering widower, has an affair with an environmental activist, an emotionally mature, highly intelligent, young-middle-aged woman (Annette Benning). The italicized words in the last sentence indicate what a pleasant alternative to real life this movie has turned out to be. But in the early nineties, when Sorkin wrote the script, President was probably not intended as purely escapist entertainment. Sorkin and Reiner, who must have heard rumblings of the scandals to come (at least by the time they came to shoot the film) seemed to be attempting two things: (1) warn the public that the enemies of democracy (that is, right-wing Republicans) would try to pull down Clinton with charges of sexual immorality; and (2) give a pep talk to Clinton about following through on his 1992 campaign promises. Certainly, when President Michael Douglas does follow through, his approval ratings skyrocket, etc., etc. If wishes were presidential limousines, Hollywood geniuses would ride.

Even nongeniuses would, judging by the dopey but highly rated TV movie, Running Mates, that TNT offered as an alternative to the real conventions last summer. This nonsense had campaign financing reform on its very dim mind, with presidential nominee Tom Selleck forced to choose as his running mate either a crusading McCain type or a grotesquely glowering villain-senator who is the paladin of the PACs. Naturally, Selleck seems about to cave in to Senator Evil but changes his mind during his acceptance speech and hauls the open-mouthed McCain stand-in up on the dais as the entire audience of delegates bellows, "america is not for sale."

There was one half-decent scene in which the four women Selleck has slept with-wife, campaign manager, political dowager, Hollywood fundraiser-get together in the ladies’ room lounge to dish, defend, and dissect the man they have in common. This chitchat-bitchy but accepting, faintly scurrilous but jovial-was yet another example of Hollywood wishfulness. These four classy ladies were as much the filmmakers’ replacements for Ms. Flowers and Ms. Lewinsky as Tom Selleck was the virtuous, reproving doppelgänger for Bill Clinton. Sure, President-to-be Selleck slept around-but not with scandal-divulging bimbos. If wishes were limousines...

But such wishfulness seems to pay off at the box office and in the ratings. When Primary Colors, a hardheaded, funny movie evincing hardly any wishfulness at all, was released, the impeachment proceedings were imminent and perhaps the public was so revulsed by reality that it decided that no fictionalized adumbration of the whole mess, however clever, was needed.

If President Clinton saw Primary Colors, I’m sure he liked it, especially John Travolta’s portrayal of the Clinton stand-in Jack Stanton as "a man so confident of his skills and, even more so, of his destiny that he feels licensed to risk self-destruction" (to quote my own review of the movie). Oscar Wilde was right about Caliban’s rage for seeing himself in the mirror. But what if the president saw Running Mates and The American President or watches "The West Wing" on a regular basis? What does he make of these virtuous, reproving doppelgängers? Does he smile ruefully or sarcastically when he watches? Does he shake his head at the noble, straightforward choices made by these heroes? Or...is he like William Wilson who found deep in his heart a poignant attraction toward the imaged sum of his own best possibilities?

Published in the 2000-11-03 issue: 

Richard Alleva has been reviewing movies for Commonweal since 1990.

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