Sunday, March 11, 2012

Sunday Reading

Does art imitate life or the other way around? Here are three stories that examine that question.

Generation West Wing — Juli Weiner on how Aaron Sorkin’s TV series inspired political wonks.

President Obama is often credited with inspiring political idealism in young people (at least until the campaign ended and actual governing began). But before Obama there was Aaron Sorkin and President Josiah Bartlet. It’s been nearly 6 years since the series finale of The West Wing, and more than 12 since the one-hour drama, which Sorkin created and largely wrote, first walked and talked its way through NBC’s Wednesday-night lineup; and yet you might think the series never ended, given the currency it still seems to enjoy in Washington, the frequency with which it comes up in D.C. conversations and is quoted or referenced on political blogs. In part this is because the smart, nerdy—they might prefer “precocious”—kids who grew up in the early part of the last decade worshipping the cool, technocratic charm of Sorkin’s characters have today matured into the young policy prodigies and press operatives who advise, brief, and excuse the behavior of the most powerful people in the country.

In the same way that the noble, sleeves-rolled sleuthing of Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman as Woodward and Bernstein in All the President’s Men prompted legions of baby-boomers to dream of careers in journalism, The West Wing, which made policy discussions seem thrilling and governing heroic, has become a totem—its romanticization of a stuffy, insular industry infusing a historically uncool career with cultural cachet. Rather than treat the political process as risible at best (Dick, say, or Primary Colors), a horror show at worst (The Ides of March), The West Wing was pluckily idealistic. A hyper-real drama about waiting for a callback from some freshman congressman (D—Nowheresville) would have sent aspiring White House interns and aides running back to law school. Instead, The West Wing “took something that was for the most part considered dry and nerdy—especially to people in high school and college—and sexed it up,” says Eric Lesser, who worked in the Obama White House as a special assistant to former senior adviser David Axelrod and is now a student at Harvard Law School.

Which isn’t to say all high-school and college students were equally susceptible to the show’s siren call. But for those who were primed to be seduced, The West Wing was something of a first (intellectual) crush—immediate, unconditional, and, naturally, one-sided. “I remember when they were first promoting The West Wing, and I was like, ‘Oh, man, I can’t wait to see that,’ ” Lesser says, recalling a pop-cultural urgency that others in his cohort might have reserved for a new Jessica Simpson video.

Another pre-sold fan was Meredith Shiner, currently a personable 24-year-old congressional reporter for Roll Call, who describes herself as “the kind of girl who woke up on Sunday morning and watched Meet the Press with my dad.” At Duke, from which Shiner graduated in 2009, she would watch old West Wing episodes over milk shakes with friends on what she calls “West Wing therapy nights.” (In fairness, this sort of social event could conceivably happen at campuses other than Duke’s.) Shiner’s enthusiasm for the show is particularly unbridled: “I always say to my friends, ‘I wish Aaron Sorkin could script my life.’ ”

Ladies Choice — Amy Davidson reviews HBO’s Game Change.

“All right ladies—who’s it going to be?” Rick Davis, John McCain’s campaign manager, as played by Peter MacNicol, says in “Game Change,” as he limbers up his fingers and hits Google and YouTube in search of a Vice-Presidential candidate. In the previous scene, Steve Schmidt, as played by Woody Harrelson, has explained to McCain that he’s not going to win with a boring old middle-aged white man—in which category, tellingly, he puts Mitt Romney—because Barack Obama has changed the game. “So find me a woman,” McCain said. He has just asked them to do something they have no idea how to go about doing.


“Game Change” presents McCain as stuck—definitely lose with a man, maybe win with Palin. (When Schmidt says he’s sorry, McCain, played by Ed Harris, says “Don’t be. Fuck ’em. What were we supposed to do?”) On what planet were those the alternatives? The question of why McCain chose Palin is, ultimately, much less interesting than why he didn’t choose Hutchison or any others. There were really no qualified Republican women? Then the G.O.P. as a party—one that spots talent on city councils and state houses—is in worse shape than even the contraception-policy madness of the past few weeks would indicate. Or was it that the party leaders had no vision, no lenses of their own, for seeing and reading the women who were in front of them? Many reviewers have called “Game Change” kind to McCain, and it sure tries, but on the whole it’s pretty damning.

Once you have four people whose names are on the Presidential and Vice-Presidential lines on the major-party ticket, there is a non-trivial chance that any one of them can be President. (And McCain was in his seventies.) “Game Change” makes some of the revelations about Palin’s crushing lack of knowledge frightening. She doesn’t know what the Fed is; she doesn’t know why North and South Korea are separate countries; she thinks she knows that the Queen of England is running military policy. (Elizabeth II might have it in her.) And it handles the ethical question—can we live with ourselves if we put this woman in power?—with some humor:

MARK SALTER: You know what Dick Cheney said when he picked her?
MARK SALTER: Said we made a reckless choice. When you lose the moral high ground of Dick Cheney you have to rethink your entire life.

Putting Life in “Death of a Salesman” — Patrick Healy on an actor’s journey to recreate a role.

Before most performances of the new Broadway revival of “Death of a Salesman,” as other cast members stretch in their dressing rooms, Philip Seymour Hoffman walks onto the stage of the Barrymore Theater and folds his barrel frame into a chair at the Loman family kitchen table. And there he sits for a half-hour or so on the purposely claustrophobic little set, preparing to become Willy Loman, that worn traveling salesman, proud father and husband, who is also the greatest tragic hero that American playwriting has produced. Sometimes Mr. Hoffman sips coffee and pages through the script, mentally tracing Willy’s journey into madness. Sometimes he talks with Linda Emond, the actress playing Willy’s wife, Linda, who also likes to visit the Loman home before curtain. And sometimes, not unlike Willy, he wanders back and forth across his own imagination.

It’s an opportunity for communion with a godlike role by an actor who admits to being superstitious about anything that might cut into the vulnerability and honesty that are essential to creating a great Willy.

No surprise, then, that the work has become all-consuming for Mr. Hoffman, 44. Even after midnight he and Ms. Emond are still comparing notes by text message. He runs lines at home with his young son. Sleep has become fitful, as was clear during a recent lunch interview where he apologetically stifled yawns between bites of a breakfast sandwich.

“It’s hard getting inside this guy for a lot of different reasons,” Mr. Hoffman said. (Not once during the interview did he utter the name Willy.) “It’s like Whac-a-Mole. Certain moments make sense, then they don’t, then others do, then they don’t anymore. All of a sudden you’ve lost what you found — you thought you knew what that moment in a scene was about, and then you don’t anymore. And then you do.”

Doonesbury — Defining down.

By the way, next week’s Doonesbury strips might be banned from your local paper because of the “controversial” nature of the subject matter. If so, you can read them here.