'Political Animals': The Clintons Meet TV Fiction
There's been a lot of buzz surrounding USA's new mini-series, "Political Animals" starring Sigourney Weaver as Elaine Hammond, America's Secretary of State. In Sunday night's debut you see Elaine, a former first lady to a womanizing, but popular ex-president, lose a contentious primary to her less-experienced but flashier rival. That loss turns out to be a blessing in disguise, allowing her to find her moral center as secretary of state, becoming more popular than she's ever been. Finally the public gets to see that Elaine Hammond is not a cold, calculating, ambitious word that rhymes with witch (a word used a lot on this show), but a compassionate, stoic, consummate lady and loving mother. Premise sound familiar?
It did to me too. Considering my job of covering current Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, I decided to check out this "fictional" show. If "Political Animals" is based on the Clintons, or what the show producers and writers imagine the Clinton family to be like, then my observations are as follows: The producers really like Hillary Clinton. They really think former President Bill Clinton is a talented politician, but a lousy person. They really don't think very highly of journalists, or the way we cover politics. At all.
The premiere begins with a cameo from a real journalist. NBC's Andrea Mitchell discussing how history is about to be made from the first serious women presidential candidate preparing to concede a bitter primary fight. Cut to Elaine, decked out in a fabulous designer purple pantsuit giving her concession speech to throngs of adoring young women in the crowd. One holding a sign, reminiscent of the 2008 primary that says "This is Elaine Country." Hammond enthusiastically tells the crowd she believes she will see a woman president in her lifetime, but looks tired and defeated afterwards as she gathers with her family. She tells her husband, popular ex-President "Bud" Hammond, who says the most crass things with the most charming southern drawl, that campaigning isn't the only thing she's tired of - she wants a divorce. Hammond then goes on to campaign for her rival, the dapper Paul Garcetti who, once elected, appoints her to his cabinet as Secretary of State.
The Hammond divorce is obviously not modeled after the Clintons, since they are still married. But the episode touches on why the writers imagine Mrs. Clinton has stayed with a husband known as much for his indiscretions as his political genius. At the end of the episode, Elaine tells a reporter who has literally blackmailed her for an interview (I'll get to that in a minute) that the reason she stayed for so long was pretty simple. "I stayed because I loved him," she says.
While Bud Hammond, portrayed by Ciar`an Hinds, is definitely a self-centered jerk and a sore loser, "Political Animals" seems to feel kind of bad for good ole Bud. He's a victim of his own ego who just can't help himself. At the engagement dinner for the couple's son, Bud takes hot, big busted Latina actress as his date, but it's clear he regrets the break up of his marriage, telling the ex-Mrs. Hammond that she's still the hottest "piece of tail" he's ever laid eyes on.
The show's drama surrounding the Hammond's twin sons, seem to have little in common with the Clintons, however. Douglas, "the good twin," works with his mother and is engaged to a lovely Japanese-American woman, while Thomas, known by his nickname of TJ, is "the bad twin," a screw up drug addict who also happens to be the first openly gay child of president. They are nothing like how the public has grown to view Chelsea Clinton as a non-political, hardworking and by all accounts pretty normal young women.
President Garcetti administration appears as mostly incompetent, with a petulant Chief of Staff and a president who seems slightly in over his head. But none of these people serve as the show's real villains in the premiere. It's clear that Elaine Hammond isn't threatened by any of them, including Bud. She is always the smartest, wisest and most moral person in the room, and everybody knows it.
The real villains in this show, so far, seem to be the journalists. Starting with Susan Berg, portrayed by Carla Gugino, who won a Pulitzer in her twenties covering Bud's indiscretions for the fictional "Washington Globe" and apparently was angry at Mrs Hammond for staying with her husband, blaming her decision for killing feminism. Berg is borderline obsessed with finding out why Elaine stayed so she decides it's a good idea to to blackmail the Secretary of State of America for a week of access in exchange for keeping the paper from running a story about TJ's failed suicide attempt. Berg later tells her boyfriend, who is also her boss at the paper, that she never actually intended to run the story, then she swears him to secrecy. But that's too juicy a scoop to be buried in pillow talk and he promptly gives the story to the paper's hot young blogger, whom he is also sleeping with because…this is a drama after all.
Now I haven't asked my old Columbia Journalism School ethics professor about this scenario, but I'm pretty sure this entire plot would make an excellent case study on everything journalists should not do. First off choosing to withhold what may or may not be a legitimate story is within a journalist's rights; using said story to blackmail someone? Way uncool. Secondly, people have relationships with co-workers who are sometimes their bosses all the time. But telling your editor, who is responsible for getting readers, clicks, advertisements, and keeping the paper from going under, that you sat on a hot story, then making him promise as your "boyfriend" not to do anything about it? Well, that ended as any viewer could have predicted - badly.
By the end of the first episode, Berg has left her boyfriend and when she meets with Hammond at the Washington Zoo to admire elephants and their matriarchal society, the two women seem to form an alliance. Hammond gives Berg a scoop: she is recommending Bud be dispatched to Iran to help negotiate the release of three American hostages. Hammond tells Berg she wants a new headline to supplant the one about her son's suicide attempt, knowing that in this age of 24-hour news, this morning's scandal is old by the evening.
The media's voracious appetite for covering the politician as celebrity is a constant theme throughout the show. The day the three Americans are detained by the Iranian government, a fictional anchor first reports on the growing diplomatic crisis being negotiated by Secretary Hammond to try and save the lives of the hostages, and then gives equal time to Douglas's engagement party. Will the Americans survive? Will Bud's bring his new girlfriend and her cleavage to his son's very public wedding? We'll all just have to tune in next week to find out.