Forget Obama's West Wing Myth, Politics Is about the Whip-Hand

Article excerpt


THE impressions we get about the nitty-gritty of political life come mostly from television series such as The West Wing. It received positive reviews from critics, professors, and former White House staff.

In total, it won three Golden Globe Awards and 26 Emmys, including the prize for Outstanding Drama Series, which it won four consecutive times from 2000 to 2003. The show's ratings dropped in later years but it remained popular among higher-income viewers, a key target for the show and its advertisers.

The ideal political figure to be imagined in this glitzy American-centred political world would be a mix of Presidents Jeb Bartlett, John F Kennedy and Barack Obama. He (or she) would combine liberal open-mindedness with soaring rhetoric and a dash of personal style. This would be politics as a sexy activity, even if not quite in the sense of Henry Kissinger's aphorism that 'power is the ultimate aphrodisiac'.

We got a glimpse of this view of politics during President Obama's recent Irish visit. Here was the handsome US president with his beautifully-attired wife and children Malia, 15, and Sasha, 12.

Each parent artfully descended Air Force One hand-in-hand with a child. Seeing this I immediately wondered how many parents descend from aircraft hand-in-hand with their adolescent children? But the Obamas are no ordinary family. They are a political family for whom the projection of a warm and reassuring family image is an important part of the president's efforts to boost his political image and to thus maximise his political effectiveness.

The charity efforts of the president's wife can be similarly categorised. It's not that Michelle Obama's support for charities such as Healthy Child, Healthy World is fake. It's that the attention given to those activities result primarily from her position as First Wife. Who today can name Laura Bush's charity choices? The impression given by The West Wing and much media coverage of the Obama presidency is that the keys to political success are smart public relations and clever campaigning by intelligent political operatives.

POLITICS is presented as an individual sport to be won by cleverness, idealism and idealistic oratory. But how realistic is this view? Consider the patron saint of Irish Americathartic ca, John F Kennedy. He is regarded here with pride because of his Irish roots. He is viewed with deep affection for lifting the mood of an insular Ireland just climbing out of the dismal 1950s and showing us what we could aspire to in the exciting 1960s. And there has been a deep sense of loss after he was killed at the age of just 46. Yet for all our hero worship, and for all of Kennedy's soaring rhetoric, his political progress as president was quite limited.

In late 1963, when he was assassinated, Kennedy's two top priority pieces of legislation - the Civil Rights Bill and tax-cut legislation - were blocked in Congress. And there was very little prospect of him making much progress on either. It took the shock of his assassination and the arrival of Lyndon B Johnson to the White House to change that. As Johnson said himself: 'I had to take the dead man's agenda and turn it into the martyr's cause.' In political terms, Johnson was almost the very opposite of Kennedy: crude rather than stylish; a bully rather than elegant; a man who often played to people's worst instincts rather than their better ones.

But, while Kennedy got stuck, it was Johnson who made possible the seemingly impossible. For it was Johnson who got Kennedy's stalled legislative programme moving and passed. How did he do this? Johnson bullied, cajoled and bent members of Congress to his will.

Combined with his own mastery of congressional procedure (which he won in the many years that he had presided as Senate majority leader), this was sufficient for Johnson to make real legislative political progress in early 1964 as opposed to the merely rhetorical progress which had been made under Kennedy from 1961 to 1963. …