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The American President in Film and Television

Myth, Politics and Representation

Gregory Frame

As evidenced by the election of celebrity and reality television star Donald Trump, popular culture has played a vital role in the conceptualisation of political leadership. This revised edition of The American President in Film and Television explores the complex relationship between the construction of fictional presidents on screen and the political cultures from which they emerged. How have our popular cultural fantasies of presidential leadership contributed to the current political reality? Combining textual analysis with close attention to political and historical contexts, the book addresses the reasons behind the proliferation of images of the president in the past twenty-five years, from the archetype in American genre cinema (Air Force One, Independence Day and Deep Impact) to the idealised fantasy figure in network television (The West Wing, 24 and Commander in Chief). With the election of a president whose worldview appears to have been formed entirely by the aesthetics and rhetoric of popular culture, where does the presidency – either on screen or in the White House – go from here?

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Chapter 4: The West Wing: Continuity and Change from Clinton to Bush



The West Wing premiered on NBC in the United States in September 1999. Despite protestations from the network that public cynicism about politicians in the aftermath of the Lewinsky scandal would deter viewers from watching a programme so staunchly optimistic about the political process, The West Wing defied initial expectations to become a critical and commercial hit. The programme capitalised on general disenchantment with politics to present a buoyant, inspiring vision of the American presidency, conforming largely to the template established in classical Hollywood cinema by Frank Capra. As Chris Lehmann argued rather disparagingly, The West Wing ‘offers a pointedly sunny weekly fable about the unassailable motives and all-too-human foibles of the nation’s governing class which verges on the Capra-esque.’1 Although The West Wing is certainly not beholden to the same brand of populist ideology that saturates Capra’s political films, the influence is clearly a crucial one. The West Wing is heavily indebted to the Capraesque notion that the American system is inherently good, and it can achieve great things if it is maintained by honest, hard-working individuals with noble intentions. In comparison with the period of uncertainty and malaise in which Capra enjoyed his greatest success, the social and political context from which The West Wing derives is more benign. However, both perpetuate the fundamental belief in the United States’ ability to achieve good things if it is governed by good people. This ← 111 | 112 → idea was as influential when the The West Wing premiered...

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