Week after week, I’ve cursed “24” — like I don’t have anything better to do — for its insistence on portraying senior government officials, even the president — no, especially the president — as cartoonish dolts devoid of common sense and bent on making the wrong decision whenever the opportunity arises. (Tonight’s example: The president — actually the vice president who has taken the helm after the president was critically injured in the downing of Air Force One — orders the Secret Service to arrest a counterterrorist agent who’s in the midst of busting a bad guy who’s determined to set off a nuclear weapon. Because of the president’s idiocy, the bad guy gets away. Of course.)
At the same time, on the strength of seeing the first two or three seasons of “The West Wing” on DVD, I’ve been struck at what an idealistic, admiring portrait of the presidency that show presents. Among liberals, anyway, I think it’s been commonplace to think what a wonderful world this would be if only President Jed Bartlett were running the show (a few years ago, Martin Sheen came to talk at a church here in Berkeley, and the audience treated him with something like reverence that it was clear was due in part to his role as “West Wing” president).
Now I realize that I’ve been cursing and admiring the wrong TV presidents. Yes, the chief executives on “24” are pathetic morons who never let good counsel get in the way of a bad move. And Jed Bartlett’s White House really is too good to be the real nerve center of the free world. But: The “24” version of “reality” is great comic relief, and even the current president looks like a giant compared to the idiots who show up as president on its episodes. “The West Wing” just depresses me with the illusion that we could have leadership so much better than what we’ve settled for.