I Can't Handle The Truth: Why Malcolm Tucker and Jed Bartlet Trump Barack Obama
There is an old, popular adage ‘Truth is stranger than fiction’. Like most old, popular adages, it is a load of old balls; a phallic fallacy, if you will (and you shall; this is my blog.) Because of course, truth isn’t stranger than fiction. Fiction has given us the War of the Worlds, Star Trek and the Daily Mail Health section, all of them certifiably insane. Truth has given us Geography, bread and the feeding habits of the British badger. I think I might pass out from the sheer mundanity of it all. The obvious reality is that fiction is infinitely more interesting than truth. ‘YOU COULDN’T WRITE THIS SCRIPT’ deluded sports commentators dementedly scream at us. Well actually, Steve Cram, yes, yes I bloody could. And you know what, I could do it pretty bloody easily as well. Here’s a first draft:
A man stands in the blocks of the 200 metres. He is a nice man. He has, at some indeterminate point in his past suffered bereavement/repeated injury/disfiguring car crash. The race starts. The man has a bad start. He is running slower than the other runners. Gradually he gets faster. Then he gets even faster. Then he overtakes the other running men. He crosses the line and wins the race. The man cries.
See, there’s the script, I wrote it. What’s more, it’s a shit script; it’s been the same script for years now. In fact, someone else already wrote it; it’s called Chariots of Fire. And that was shit too.
Anyway, this was all by way of demonstrating my original premiss ‘Truth is not stranger than fiction’. For, lately, I have found myself hankering for the realms of fiction in preference to those of truth in one particular sphere: politics. We are currently midway through August which means, of course, that the battle for the White House is gathering pace. But none of the hype or propaganda being generated by both campaigns can deflect from the gloomy feeling of anti-climax. 2008 was a fantastic election, the most interesting in decades and, for once, had enough dramatic twists and turns to make a half-decent screenplay. Barack Obama’s shock defeat of the presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary, McCain’s VP selection of Sarah ‘I can see Russia from my house’ Palin, the election of the first ever black President; 2008 was truly dramatic. It genuinely felt as if the forces of history and social change were propelling Golden Boy Obama to a victory which, if not preordained, was somehow inevitable. The symbolism of the candidacy was irresistible to many voters and the election became truly historic. No surprise then that this election is failing to spark the world’s collective consciousness. Truth is suddenly looking far less strange than fiction, but rather more boring.
Indeed, it is hard to get excited about anything which involves the slab of flesh that is Mitt Romney. In many ways, he seems like a work of fiction, the archetypal, stereotypical Republican candidate: rich, successful, handsome, and a father of five strapping sons, Matthew, Joshua, Craig, Benjamin and, erm, Taggart (One presumes that Mitt hasn't seen the ITV series. But it is of course a Romney tradition to give your first born son a ludicrous name). The only problem is that the great cosmic Republican author in the sky forgot to develop Mitt's character. Romney is devoid of charm or substance, lacks humour, empathy and humility. He delivers lines with all the verve of a porn actor, the plumber who arrives to ‘fix the pipes’ in Guess Who's Cumming To Dinner (N.B. this is not a real porn film). The man is a human void. It’s hard to hate him, simply because there’s so little of him there to hate. Commentators believe that the Republicans are strategically abstaining from giving Romney firm policy positions so the Democrats have less to aim at. But I think that Romney is naturally blank. Look at his cold, dead eyes; there’s nothing inside.
The race’s paucity of excitement has left me longing for the fictional alternative to the soporific truth. One of my favourite TV shows ever is The West Wing, the superlative American series written by Aaron Sorkin, which ran for seven seasons depicting the fictional presidency of Josiah ‘Jed’ Bartlet and his supporting network of staffers, Leo, Josh, C.J., Sam, etc. The show’s overwhelming (and deserved) success depended on Sorkin’s transformation of one of the most boring topics (politics) into a subject of high emotional drama, crafting a show which entertained, amused, moved and informed viewers. Beautifully written, it was incredibly funny for what was essentially a serious drama. It also had Martin Sheen, so let’s face it, greatness was guaranteed. The West Wing was always a show of unattainable ideals; Jed Bartlet was a paradigm liberal President, humble, hyper–intelligent, tolerant, funny and unflinchingly principled. All of the characters are almost inconceivably naïve and morally perfect when compared to the corrosive world of real politics. The show ignores the excruciatingly boring day-to-day minutiae of politics and presents instead a kind of moral quest through the various international crises or ethical dilemmas which seem to crop up every three hours. Over seven series, President Bartlet was shot, had his daughter kidnapped, assassinated a foreign leader, saved social security, solved the Middle East peace process and invaded several foreign countries. Obama couldn’t compete even if he had smothered Bin Laden to death with the Stars and Stripes himself.
The moral purity treasured by Aaron Sorkin (c.f. The Newsroom) is of course unrealistic, and it should not surprise us that our leaders fall short. For anyone who forgets that Obama is by trade a politician, not an icon, should read John Heilemann and Mark Halpern’s account of the 2008 election, Race of a Lifetime; some of Obama’s tactics there should raise eyebrows and would certainly make President Barlet blush like a virgin in a strip club.
At the other end of the politically holier-than-thou spectrum (patent David Miliband 2009) is my other favourite political show The Thick of It, which doesn’t so much embrace the dirty side of politics as luxuriate in it, rolling around in it like an unclean pig glories in its own filth. It is heavily based on political reality, focusing on a New Labouresque government, with several characters identifiable as real-life politicians. At the centre of the heart of darkness lies Malcolm Tucker. The savage, brutal, dirty Tucker is famously modelled on Alistair Campbell, but I can’t quite imagine the New Labour spin king saying this:
‘You know I'm thinking of doing a television programme? It's good, you know that programme Civilisation with Kenneth Clarke? It's gonna be like that, except with fucking more quim, you know? "It's me, Simon Schama and Alan Yentob in a cage, fucking lump hammer each, whacking the shit out of each other. The last man standing wins a fucking Ford Focus.’
Tucker’s swearing is beautiful, pure poetry, but his character is an overblown exaggeration of reality. So too are his political dogfights, his backstabbing, his trademark ‘bollockings’. However controversial or interesting real politics can get, it has nothing on the adventures of Malcolm Tucker.
The Thick of It, like The West Wing is just too perfectly crafted a show. While politics can prove interesting and does throw up interesting moral questions or fascinating battles, I can’t help being rather underwhelmed by it all at the moment. It is not that modern realpolitik leaves me disillusioned, I just find myself yearning for more, more controversy, more intrigue, more than mundane reality can ultimately deliver. Come November this year, I’ll do my inevitable election all-nighter, but this time considerably less interested and without the sense of being in the presence of history (Although in ‘08, I was buying a burger in Gardies at 4am and missed Obama’s historic victory address.) Perhaps I’ll just load up the crack pipe and trip out over David Dimbleby’s sleep-deprived ramblings. But even in my cocaine-fuelled haze, I’ll still long for the fiction. Bartlet For America. And Tucker for… well, the world, frankly.