David Rodeback's Blog

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Life Among the Mormons, and Other Stuff

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Wednesday, October 19, 2005
Some Overdue Housekeeping: Commander in Chief, Open Meeting Statutes, a Flyer, and Selecting a New Police Chief (Not Necessarily in That Order)

I recently blogged about the search and selection process for some senior City staff, the police chief, the fire chief, and the city planner. I listed several things I hope are happening and wish I were hearing about, as a city resident. I now have it on good authority that several of them actually were already happening. I'm not surprised, but there's still a dearth of communication. And, as I suspected, at least a couple of them cannot happen, due to privacy laws. I hope to hear and report more details soon.

Councilman and mayoral candidate Shirl LeBaron recently blogged about governing in the open. He attached the actual state statute which applies. (Such a nice habit!) I've been hearing for years from a certain elected official that three members of the City Council (including the Mayor) are not permitted to be in the same room, even for social purposes, without advance public notice of the meeting. This sounded as silly to me as it does to you. The statute, Utah Code 54-4-5(2), says it "shall not apply to any chance meeting or a social meeting." To forestall the obvious possibility of abuse, it also says, "No chance meeting or social meeting shall be used to circumvent this chapter."

Councilman Shirl LeBaron's next flyer, which hit my mailbox today, emphasizes his broad experience. It will help his campaign, unlike the previous flyer.

Finally, ABC has now run three more episodes of Commander in Chief since I promised to comment on the first. In fact, ratings apparently are so good that the episodes, which run first on Tuesday evening, also rerun on Saturday evening. I have seen three and a half out of four episodes.

By now it doesn't make much sense to analyze the first episode in detail. Instead, here are some general comments.

First, the obvious: It's a far cry better than "reality TV." Second, it's far better than the trashy drama which follows it on ABC, Boston Public. Third, the cast, including big names Geena Davis (as President) and Donald Sutherland (Speaker of the House) is excellent.

The writing doesn't have the crisp energy of The West Wing, at least not yet. And in some ways the show is more conventional. For example, it has a chief villain, Sutherland's Nathan Templeton, who is out to destroy the new President. He seems to exert influence far broader than his actual authority would suggest; in one episode he's working on getting the "right" sort of presidential nominees through the Senate, even though he's the speaker of the House of Representatives. (I'm hoping this isn't just clueless writing.) Of course, he's a conservative, like the previous President, and his effort to undermine the new President is ongoing - because that, in Hollywood's fantasy world, is how conservatives treat anyone who is not a right-wing nut job, but especially a powerful woman. By contrast, The West Wing has no Voldemort; sufficient unto each episode (or plot line) are the villains thereof. In that world it is actually possible for a decent person to hold a conservative viewpoint. For this reason, in part, the conservative view of issues gets a fair hearing rather frequently in NBC's venerable drama. I do not expect this from Commander in Chief, which, so far, has made no serious attempt to paint conservatives as decent human beings.

To some extent, The West Wing is a policy wonk's delight, and I'm intrigued that it has been so popular for so long with (forgive the term) normal people. Commander in Chief, so far, is less devoted to the nuts and bolts of policy and more to high-level personal relationships and political machinations (e.g. the back-stabbing). Both are indisputably part of politics; both appear in both shows, but the balance is far different. I'm more of a political junkie, so I cannot judge reliably, but I suspect that a more conventional audience will prefer Commander in Chief's view of politics, at least for entertainment purposes. It may have additional appeal, in that it focuses more on the President's family, as in teenage children, than NBC's counterpart does; the Presidential marriage plays a large role in The West Wing, but the adult children's role is minor.

There are probably liberals-under-the-bed types out there who are convinced that the new show with a female President is calculated to soften up the country for a Hillary Clinton candidacy. If it is, I don't think it matters. The major obstacle to a Hillary Clinton presidency will be her politics, not her gender. I think, at least I hope, that we've reached a point in our politics where finding the right candidate matters more than finding the right gender.

There are also those who would like the public to believe that all conservatives are power-mad, scheming misogynists, like Sutherland's Templeton. But his value is as an interesting specific character, not as a stereotype. The rhetoric about him in the first episode is a realistic sampling of overblown liberal rhetoric about conservatives, but the picture it paints of conservatives is a deceptive (albeit familiar) caricature. "This guy [Speaker Templeton] makes Genghis Khan look like Mahatma Gandhi," observes one staffer, who also foretells the return of book-burning, creationism in the classroom, and the policy of invading every Third-World country, if the Vice President resigns (as urged) and the Speaker ascends. (Do liberals really still call it the Third World? I thought that phrase was replaced in the politically correct lexicon decades ago.)

It's worth noting that in the show's plot Davis's President Allen ascended to the Oval Office as unusual figures usually do in fiction. She began as a vice presidential nominee, chosen, as is often the case, to increase the ticket's appeal to a needed constituency. (Dick Cheney is the only recent exception to this pattern I can think of in the real world.) Not only is she female; she is also an independent (without party affiliation). I first thought the death of the President, followed by the ascension of an unlikely successor, was a bit too pat for a show which apparently wants to be realistic - besides being something of a cliche. On reflection, however, I think it was necessary. It spares the writers and the viewers the inevitable intricacies of a plot which could plausibly explain how an independent could get elected President in modern times. (This is considerably less likely than a woman being elected.) Pulling that off at the beginning of the series, with still-undeveloped characters and new audience, would be a tough, perhaps impossible task for the writers. If the show survives long enough for the next fictional campaign to arrive, perhaps they will develop this independent campaign plot line carefully over numerous episodes. Even then it will be an impressive achievement, if they pull it off.

Meanwhile, as in Martin Sheen's President Bartlet on NBC, we can continue to enjoy in Davis's President Allen the ultimate modern American political fantasy: an articulate president who (for liberals) isn't Ronald Reagan and (for all) isn't as dead as Abraham Lincoln. (By the way, how come Davis can say the words, "Freedom is our gift to the world," with a straight face, when George W. Bush's enemies mock him for his idealism and supposed intolerance, not to mention imperial desires, when he says essentially the same thing?)

I've learned not to judge the viability of a show by my tastes, but if the early ratings are any indicator, this one may run for a while. I'll keep watching Commander in Chief, at least for the present. It's not just not bad; it's actually good. It's more conventional than The West Wing, despite the unusual identity of the President, so I am skeptical of its plot's and characters' ability to hold audience interest in the long run. (Remember, few thought The West Wing itself could command an audience, initially.) But so far, so good.

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