The Prime-Time Presidency: The West Wing and U.S. Nationalism.

Author:Skewes, Elizabeth A.
Position:Book review

Parry-Giles, T., & Parry-Giles, S. J. (2006). The prime-time presidency: The West Wing and U.S. nationalism. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press. 231 pages.

In The Prime-Time Presidency: The West Wing and U.S. Nationalism, Trevor Parry-Giles and Shawn J. Parry-Giles provide a thorough and thoughtful analysis of the first 31/2 seasons of The West Wing, a drama about the inner workings of the White House, which debuted in 1999. The authors do this through the lens of nationalism, which they say "exposes not only the relations of power characteristic of U.S. nationalism but also the dispute over what U.S. nationalism actually means--or what it means to be an American" (p. 19). The result is a book that examines themes that appear and reappear in the Emmy-winning television series and shows how the program defines, sometimes challenges, and often reifies notions of the presidency, race, and gender.

The authors point out that The West Wing takes the viewer behind the scenes of the fictional administration of Josiah "Jed" Bartlet, but that the program's "high degree of perceived mimetic verisimilitude" (p. 5) causes it to resonate with its audience. Unlike many other presidential representations--consider Kevin Kline in Dave or Harrison Ford in Air Force One--Jed Bartlet, played by Martin Sheen, is complex. He is heroic not because he saves a plane from terrorists, but because he struggles with the decisions that he has to make for the country. He's humanized not by his warm persona, but by his inner conflicts. The authors argue that this post-modern, fictional president has to deal with problems that mimic issues faced by recent real presidents. The crisis in Bartlet's White House over his decision to withhold his multiple sclerosis diagnosis raises the issue of the president's right to privacy in much the same way that the Clinton White House faced privacy issues in the wake of the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

But the focus on Bartlet, the authors assert in later chapters, also leads to a show that is largely defined...

To continue reading