- The Prime-Time Presidency: The West Wing and U.S. Nationalism
As we prepare for the next presidential campaign season, a flurry of books about candidates, campaigns, and the U.S. presidency is appearing. Although researchers might not place a book about the popular television drama The West Wing at the top of their "must-read" list, the omission would be a mistake. In The Prime-Time Presidency: The West Wing and U.S. Nationalism, University of Maryland professors Trevor Parry-Giles and Shawn J. Parry-Giles conduct a close reading of the first four seasons of the NBC series The West Wing (or, "TWW," as the authors refer to it). Rather than producing a piece of narrowly focused media criticism, Parry-Giles and Parry-Giles use TWW as an entry point into examining the institution of the postmodern, rhetorical U.S. presidency and the contours of U.S. nationalism. The authors explain that "reading TWW for its nationalistic connotations and implications demonstrates how popular culture sustains and challenges existing conceptions of U.S. nationalism through presidential depictions, shaping the meaning of what it means to be an American and the identity of the United States as a nation-state" (14). [End Page 134]
In their introduction to The Prime Time Presidency, the authors assert the importance of popular culture discourses, recalling their notion of "presidentiality," a term that refers to "a discourse that demarcates the cultural and ideological meaning of the presidency for the general public" (2). Noting that much of the academic literature has considered the U.S. presidency as an institution, and/or U.S. presidents as signifiers of the nation, the authors point out that "many presidential commentators . . . ignore the symbolic importance of the presidency as a cultural force in U.S. political life" (3). Moreover, Parry-Giles and Parry-Giles assert that "to completely appreciate the ideological meaning of the presidency requires engagement with the vast collection of discourses that also figure in the cultural meaning of the office and the people who occupy it" (3).
After outlining their rationale, the authors present a detailed, text-based analysis to support their contention that TWW functions as a postmodern political romance, presenting a "complicated ideological commentary" (53). Rather than embracing the narrative chaos of some postmodern theory, Parry-Giles and Parry-Giles forward a view of postmodern romance wherein "deep-seated ideological dissonance" can be reflected (24). Consequently, their reading of TWW accounts both for the liberatory and progressive dimensions of the series as well as for the more traditional thematic elements which reinscribe the masculinity, whiteness, and militarization inherent to the U.S. presidency since its inception.
Each chapter begins with a concise but rich overview of academic literature relevant to the focus of the chapter. The authors then conduct a close reading of the series themes, events, dialogue, and character development that supports the chapter's argument. Chapter 1 sets up TWW as a political romance, noting that although the show achieves credibility with its audience by presenting the White House as a chaotic environment and its inhabitants as flawed characters, it also reaffirms the president as national hero. This portrayal of "presidential heroism," albeit via a more complex and flawed hero than has been presented in other popular culture texts, makes TWW an appealing and functional way for viewers to conceive of "presidentiality." In chapter 2, Parry-Giles and Parry-Giles examine the ways in which gender is implicated in TWW, discussing the show's use of familial dynamics among its characters, the sexualization of its female characters, and the masculinization of politics and the U.S. presidency. Chapter 3 echoes the same structure, interrogating the issue of race as it is connected to the U.S. presidency and national identity. The authors contend that "TWW's renditions of race reinforce an image of a white male presidency that naturalizes the locus of power for whiteness while reifying the subordinate and, in...