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ART IMITATES POLITICS

A presidential aide's job is on the line. The White House is befuddled by a gathering foreign-policy crisis. Factions divide the administration. The whole city is consumed by polls. Just the usual stuff around here.

But the difference is that the usual stuff -- Rose Garden variety news that is a staple of the newspapers and the networks -- is now the subject of a fast-paced television drama. Surf through the channels when the premiere of "The West Wing" airs, and you won't know whether you're watching entertainment or politics.

Finally, that line has been smudged beyond definition.

All the real drama of American public life -- the real fighting over issues, the real struggle for power, the real battle over ideas -- now looks like television fiction, and television fiction now looks like American politics. They're indistinguishable.

In truth, "The West Wing" isn't any more far-fetched than the real drama that unfolded in the real West Wing the last few years. There breathes no television producer who could have been so creative -- so daffy, really -- as to conjure up a story about a presidential Lothario carrying on with a randy intern in the little room just off the Oval Office. This new show is, nonetheless, art imitating life, opening with the same stirring nocturnal panorama of Washington that the networks use for the State of the Union message.

There are a lot of similarities between the action on the screen and the action in the White House, moreover, and chief among them is the fact that no normal human being can be expected to figure out what the mandarins of the executive mansion are talking about. They're obsessed with POTUS most of the time, an acronym that rhymes with "Otis" and means president of the United States. When you hear the cryptic message "Potus in a bicycle accident," it's easy to conclude that the phrase is code for some diplomatic calamity. But sometimes a bicycle accident is just a bicycle accident.

There's a ready-made audience for this new product -- half politics, half entertainment. A poll taken for the networks shows that 18 percent of those surveyed say they expect to look in on the new show.

There won't be many surprises once people do tune in. Since the Kennedy-Nixon debates of 1960, Americans have grown accustomed to melding entertainment and politics. They know the language, the symbols, the rituals of both, and they know that, increasingly, they are the same. And now, with Ronald Reagan in sad presidential retirement and with Warren Beatty contemplating a presidential campaign, the divisions between the two worlds are completely gone.

In the old days, Washington was a lonely, isolated place, infested with mosquitoes, full of boarding houses, unsuited to television drama. It was, as historian Merrill D. Peterson wrote, "a village pretending to be a capital, a place with a few bad houses, extensive swamps, hanging on the skirts of a too thinly peopled, weak and barren country." No more. Now it's Hollywood on the Potomac.

Much of the show was shot in the capital, and so it has the sniff of reality, though nowhere in Washington is it possible to get a sandwich and a plate of fries that look quite so inviting as the one a White House aide and his former girlfriend devour in the opening episode. It's also hard to imagine a president staying off stage quite so much as does Martin Sheen, who practiced for this role in the 1993 miniseries "Kennedy."

NBC is producing "The West Wing" purely for ratings. But this being Washington and the subject being politics, the series is vulnerable to the law of unintended consequences. And the unintended consequence of "The West Wing" is that the network may actually be performing a public service.

Not because the set looks like the real West Wing (except for the Roosevelt Room, which is a lot darker in real life, and thus a lot more mysterious and magical). Not because the characters look like the real thing (except that high-level officials wear little lapel pins, not bulky photo IDs around their neck). Not because the mind-numbing pointlessness of what many of these cardboard characters do all day is reminiscent of the real thing (except that real White House aides have no time for frills like families and personal lives).

The public service is clear. NBC has pointed out to those Washingtonians not important enough to be stuck at the White House after 9 p.m. that what they do for a living now is plain old entertainment.

The Boston Globe

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