Thursday, October 9, 2008

"So Help Me Me"; The God-Complex and the American President

Why would anyone want to be President of the United States?

It's a legitimate question, this election year more than ever. Whomever we elect is going to inherit an unpopular war, an economy as stable as a 90's-era Robert Downey Jr, a heathcare crisis, and hey, those polar ice caps aren't going to fix themselves. But even in the best of circumstances, you're pretty much guaranteed that half of the populace is going to think you're doing a lousy job.

So I ask again: what would drive a reasonable person to heap-- willingly, voluntarily-- all this abuse onto himself (or herself)?

Oh, sure, you can say something about civic duty and love of country. But I have another theory, one that was inspired by one of my favorite TV shows: NBC's "The West Wing."

For all you non-Wing-nuts out there: "The West Wing" followed the often-tumultuous two terms of President Josiah "Jed" Bartlet (brilliantly played by Martin Sheen). Why "tumultuous"? Well, let's see... over his two terms, President Bartlet got shot; was censured by Congress for not telling the American people about his multiple sclerosis; actually had several MS episodes that left him physically incapacitated; had to find a new vice-president after the first one got caught up in a sex scandal; and stepped down for a short time after his daughter got kidnaped. Plus, he was the butt of a lot of short-guy jokes.

But you have to say one thing about President Bartlet: he knew how to make an entrance.

On the very first episode of "The West Wing" (airdate: September 29, 1999), President Bartlet doesn't appear until the last act, when he dramatically interrupts a conversation between his staffers and some members of the religious right. When one of the religious righters says, "The First Commandment is 'honor thy father," communications director Toby Ziegler corrects her, explaining "Honor thy father" is actually the Third Commandment. (It's actually the Fourth Commandment, but hey...)

In the midst of all this, another religious-guy asks, "So what is the First Commandment?"-- a somewhat unrealistic but nonetheless effective way to introduce President Bartlet, whose authoritative voice booms from the doorway off-screen: "I am the Lord thy God," Bartlet intones. "Thou shalt worship no other God before me."

Now, President Bartlet is, of course, quoting the First Commandment when he says, "I am the Lord your God." But he is speaking in the first-person, so in a way, he is telling the people in that room that he-- i.e. President Bartlet-- is God.

This wasn't the last time the Big Guy's name came up in "The West Wing" (and by "Big Guy," I mean God, not Bartlet-- only in this case, the blurring may be appropriate). For at least the first four seasons-- the ones written by Aaron Sorkin-- Bartlet's Catholicism was mentioned repeatedly.

In the first season, for example, Bartlet grasped rosary beads as he agonized over whether to commute the death sentence of a murderer. He often quoted biblical passages, chapter and verse-- a talent he once used to give a verbal shellacking to a right-wing talk show host who used the Bible as ammunition in her war against homosexuality. ("Touching the skin of a dead pig makes one unclean. Leviticus 11:7," Bartlet countered. "If they promise to wear gloves, can the Washington Redskins still play football?") In the second season, we learn Bartlet, while a student at Notre Dame, had even planned on becoming a priest, until he met his wife Abbey.

Instead of becoming a priest, Bartlet cuts out the middleman and becomes God-- or at least, the next best thing. Indeed, throughout the first two seasons especially, we see evidence of Bartlet's "God-complex." For example, in the second episode, after an American plane is shot down, a steeled Bartlet promises to attack the perpetrators "with the fury of God's own thunder." In the next episode, Chief of Staff Leo McGarry (John Spencer) talks Bartlet down, warning him against "using American military strength as the arm of the Lord."

And in the second season's finale, "Two Cathedrals," President Bartlet actually calls out God in the National Cathedral, calling Him a "son of a bitch" and putting out his cigarette on the marble floor.

"To hell with Your punishments," Bartlet hisses. "I was Your servant here on Earth. And I spread Your word and did Your work. To hell with Your punishments. To hell with You." (Incidentally, he said this in Latin; writer Aaron Sorkin claimed he wanted Bartlet to talk to God in God's own language.)

Even the other characters treat Bartlet as if he were divinity. For example, in the two-part opener for Season 2, we see a flashback detailing how Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe) initially joined the Bartlet campaign. Sam was going to be made partner at a major New York law firm, but when his friend and Bartlet convert Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford) showed up at his office, he literally dropped everything to come aboard. Is this or is this not an echo of the biblical story of Jesus convincing his apostles to leave their nets-- and basically their livelihood-- and become "fishers of men"?

Now, Aaron Sorkin never used the term "God-complex" during his tenure as "The West Wing" head scribe. But it should be noted that he did use the term in the movie, Malice (for which Sorkin wrote the screenplay). In the movie, Alec Baldwin's character makes a memorable speech which concludes with the following: "You ask me if I have a God-complex. Let me tell you something. I am God." The name of Baldwin's character: Dr. JED Hill.

Yes, Sorkin does famously recycle names. (Over the course of the series, Josh Lyman saw two psychiatrists named Stanley-- what are the odds?) But the fact that Sorkin had already created a character named Jed who boasted "I am God" could lend credence to the argument that President Jed Bartlet also have a deep-rooted God-complex. After all, doesn't the president have more power than a single doctor?

So, to get back to my thesis: for at least the first two seasons, Aaron Sorkin made the case that the President of the United States-- not his fictional president one, but the actual commander in chief-- may not only have a "God complex," he (or she) may very well want to BE God.

If you think about it, what else but a compelling desire to be the most important person on the planet (in theory) could drive someone to take on such stress, such anxiety, such unparalleled headaches?

So we're left with this comundrum: We want our presidents to be smart, level-headed, and reasonable, but the very desire to be president suggests that this person must have something wrong with him (or her).

Presidential paradox, indeed.

(By the way, the divine Bartlet was resurrected a few weeks ago, when Aaron Sorkin wrote a piece for the New York Times detailing a meeting between Bartlet and Barack Obama. Always good to see President Bartlet again. How come our real candidates can't be more like him?)

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