Commander-in-Chief: Yes, I Watched It

I watched Commander-in-Chief Saturday night. It's the new ABC show starring Geena Davis as the United States V.P. who is catapulted into the President's seat when the top dog snuffs it. The idea, I think, is that she's a woman, and she's brilliant, yadda yadda, but she wasn't seeking power.

Here's the good stuff:

I like Geena Davis.
I adore Donald Sutherland (talk about scene chewing) who looks like becoming, I can only hope, Mr. Giles to Davis' Buffy.
Geena Davis' character is an independent.
Geena Davis' character is believably tough.

Here are the problems:

The movie opens with the V.P. being fetched out of an assembly. I've said it before (maybe not on this site), I'll say it again. It may or may not have been a slam at Bush (those 7 minutes in the classroom), but I think walking out of an assembly while kiddies are still singing is just rude. I don't care how big and powerful and important you are. It's rude. The guy with the brain clot back home still HAS the brain clot. The bad stuff isn't going to stop just because you get up and walk out, all important-like.

There's some kind of weird, ritualistic idea going on here: that if the politician would only react in 10 minutes, no 5, no 3, no 1, no 20 seconds, the terrorist-driven planes would disappear and the waves would wash back into the Gulf and the brain clot would dissipate even as we are speaking. Sure. Yeah. Right. Give me a break. Politicians, get over yourselves. Silly people who criticize politicians for things like sitting in a classroom for x minutes (and who expect politicians to be all-seeing, all-knowing, and omnipotent), get over your superstitions already. Presidents aren't magic. It's not Merlin to the rescue. It's a guy in a suit who works alongside other people in suits who rely on information from other people in suits who think that other people in suits know what they are doing even if they don't.

Problem 2: I don't think scaring an ambassador from a foreign country into complying with your wishes is terribly smart. It works on television, sure, but in real life . . . eh. Foreign affairs aren't that easy. I thought it would have been much more interesting if the scare tactic had backfired, and the new President would have had to make the hard decision of whether or not to go to war over a diplomatic incident. There's a mighty large group of people out there who really do believe that this kind of grandstanding works--that you don't have to go to war and lose lives and make the tough choices in order to win, you can just play mind games and make great speeches. But it doesn't work like that in the real world.

There's a Star Trek: Next Generation episode that illustrates this. Now, Star Trek: New Generation is not known for its profound plotting. Voyager gets the closest to combining the adventure story aspect of Next Generation with the no-easy-solutions of the socio-political Deep Space Nine. (Although Voyager usually gives up about ten minutes to the end and just winds everything up with a sudden plot twist.) But there is this Next Generation episode where Picard has been sent into Cardassian territory to bring back a rogue Federation captain who is blowing up Cardassian outposts. And Picard has to invite on board a bunch of Cardassians, one of whom is played by the same actor who ended up playing Gul Dukat, which means that he is really, really good at playing an ambiguous slimeball.

The Federation has informed Picard that they can't afford a war. He has to bring the rogue back. And he does, and in the process, he has to make some really difficult choices. And it turns out that, what do you know, the Cardassians are re-arming. But there isn't anything anybody can do about it. Picard warns the Gul Dukat character, and it's an effective scene, but you know and Picard knows and the Cardassians know that it doesn't make any difference. And if you are familiar with Star Trek, you know this is the beginning of the Marquis, where Federation members will go rogue to fight the encroaching Cardassians because the Federation itself can't afford to start another war and are too fine-spread anyway.

And the uncertainty is allowed to stand at the end of the episode (and you get to hear Colm Meaney sing an Irish song). It really is one of their most effective episodes.

The British do this sort of thing even better. Yes, Prime Minister works because the Prime Minister never wins. Well, occasionally. Sort of. But never really. And it isn't just because of Humphrey, the civil servant. It's because, well, it's government. Governments don't fix things, hey, presto fashion. It's not that easy, first of all. And it's a bureaucracy, second of all.

Which is why people who get excited about having a "smart" president ("He's so smart; he really thinks about stuff!") are kind of naive, me thinks. I always thought Kerry was a bit of an idiot, personally, but even if I hadn't, I wouldn't have been sold on the idea that "smartness" equals a peaceful, prosperous nation. What people who want "smart" presidents are thinking is that smart presidents will be able to do all these clever, grandstanding things (like on Commander-in-Chief) and fix stuff. But in the real world, people aren't impressed by articulate speeches and don't care much for someone else's logic and aren't going to stop to be managed or manipulated or "understood" in their geo-social-political context, etc. They just do what they want to do, and they don't always react along given "smart" lines.

Cunning, now, I don't mind cunning.

Hopefully, for the sake of Commander-in-Chief, the writers will realize this. Although, I'm not sure it matters. Maybe, Americans want their political fictions to be fantasy.


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