Part of an on-going attempt to illuminate the life and career of a political consultant, in this case, Stuart Stevens; other posts include “He Hates You”, a summary profile, a brief look at his China travel memoir, Night Train to Turkistan, his memoir of the 2000 Bush campaign, a look at his travel memoir Malaria Dreams, an analysis of his novel Scorched Earth, an analysis of his book Feeding Frenzy, his interview with Charlie Rose promoting Feeding Frenzy, Stevens and Jon Hinson, and his defense of Newt Gingrich on “Charlie Rose”. Outside profiles and mentions, all excellent, are “Building a Better Mitt Romney-Bot” by Robert Draper, “An Unconventional Strategist Reshaping Romney” by Ashley Parker, “The Coming Tsunami of Slime” by Joe Hagan, and “Mitt Romney’s Dark Knight” by Jason Zengerle.
“Wind Beneath My Wing” can be seen here on Hulu; the imdb data for the episode is here. An episode of a series portraying the administration of the first american woman president, the fictional Mackenzie Allen (Geena Davis), a Vice President and political Independent, incredibly, unassociated either with the Republicans or Democrats, who reaches power after the death of the president*. Her nemesis throughout the show is the speaker of the house, Nathan Templeton (Donald Sutherland). A good introduction to the series can be found here.
An episode that is notable for three points, the last overlapping with the position of its co-writer, Stuart Stevens, as chief strategist in the Mitt Romney presidential campaign. The ampersand in the writing credit indicates, I believe, that Steven A. Cohen and Stevens wrote the episode in collaboration, rather than one writer brought in to re-write the other’s work. Stevens also worked as co-producer and consultant on the show – so we cannot speak of what takes place as rogue work outside of his influence.
There are two plots, which I believe have thematic connections, but without any overlap in event or character. The president goes to a series of fundraising events in California. While there, Air Force One is targeted for destruction by someone, unless he gets to speak to the president. At the White House, Allen’s son and daughter have a party. The man who threatens to destroy the presidential plane turns out to be a Gulf War veteran who is desperately trying to get medical care for his ailing wife. After the party, a copy of the Gettysburg address is found missing. The president tells the soldier that whatever ways the government has failed him will be looked into and a remedy will be attempted, but his threat will not be tolerated, and he will be killed unless he surrenders. The soldier gives up. The Gettysburg address is found, the president’s youngest daughter having hidden it out of spite for all the attention her older siblings got during the party. The president returns home to have breakfast with her family, both sides of the family ignorant of the drama that the other faced.
Now, a long digression for an obvious but necessary point: though Hollywood and Washington, D.C., are seen as adversaries to each other, I think their adversarial positions are largely symbolic, for the temporary benefit of either party. Hollywood is an industry that can sate, momentarily, with images of beauty and comfort, very occasionally truth; it can easily portray its adversary as slothful and indifferent to providing this same audience with anything. The wealthy celebrities of Hollywood, who constitute a fraction of the community, are a suitable straw man opposition, privileged, ignorant children whose enthusiasms have nothing to do with the world outside their shallow lives. Hollywood is degenerate, diseased, and atheistic, Washington is old, sexless, prudish, and senescent. These symbols are a convenience, and will be abandoned when equally convenient. When Hollywood requires access to overseas markets or help in copyright law, it makes alliance without difficulty. When Hollywood portrays presidential power, it is often unskeptical and superficial.
There are two myths which are forwarded in movies and TV about american presidents, and both are to the dangerous benefit of Washington. Movies and TV value action, kineticism, so almost always the president will demonstrate their greatness through martial achievement, a war waged, the lives lost and tangible achievement secondary to the victory. The other myth is what is perceived as something like the mystic aspect of the symbols of power which somehow transforms whatever individual elected president into someone worthy of the post, somehow birthing virtues that allow them to wield power to the benefit of the citizens. Both myths are so ubiquitous, I offer no citation of either.
These myths do not exist out of supplication to power, but out of interest of what is required of the product itself. A leader involved in military action will always make for a more viable movie than about one involved in a debate over, say, agricultural subsidies. Hannibal, Genghis Khan, Che Guevera would all be considered better subjects for any visual narrative than Woodrow Wilson* or Cesar Chavez. The second myth lies entirely with ideals that are considered axiomatic in Hollywood, and are considered beyond question: that american democracy will always elect someone who has the possibility of good and virtue, with any later venality the result of corruption by power*. This ideal is commonplace, among other false axioms of the movies such as good people always eventually finding real love, and the height of heroic achievement involving a gun and killing another man – this last, of course, dovetails well with the first myth about power and military achievement. This is a myth apart from other democracies – I do not think any parliamentary democracy carries the idea that if someone is elected prime minister, they must, by virtue of election, somehow automatically assume great virtue.
This distinction in the United States might be rooted in the merging of the roles of head of government and head of state in the presidency, making the president a sort of temporary king. The divine aspect of kings, but also the idea of the United States as a nation created as christan nation comes into play here. Some holy aspect of the presidency chooses the righteous, even if this righteousnes is well hidden, and makes the person righteous. The election of an unworthy man whether it be Bill Clinton or Barack Obama, is not just the election of a bad man, in certain christian eyes, but a violation of this sacred ideal. Even among secularists, some mystic aspect is perceived, just as mystic ideas of destiny and benevolent serendipity are held onto even after much of a christian persepective is abandoned.
These myths do not exist apart from Washington, but overlap, and provide dangerous benefit to presidents. This can be found in a naivete that a president’s character will be remedied by the office, that through a holy union, this individual finally becomes “presidential”. The more lethal effect is through the emphasis placed on martial achievement. Military action is to be supported, and considered essential, as it re-inforces the idea of a president and the magic of presidential and government symbols. A president who does not wage war is wasting an opportunity. Both myths, and their horrific consequences, can be found in the presidency of George W. Bush.
A shabby mediocrity who was most of his life a non-achieving non-entity, he would no doubt have died a non-achieving non-entity without the extraordinary wealth and political power of his family. His flaws of intellectual sloppiness, impatience, and arrogance were all in full view during his presidential campaign. After his election, and a post-9/11 speech, it was observed that somehow he had gained the necessary insight and moral courage for his role – this achievement, I believe, did not arise out of any observation of his character, as he was just as dull and arrogant as before, but out of the necessity to believe that such a change had taken place. It is here that the other myth came into play: that war is of central importance to the majesty of the presidency. Napoleon lectured his generals not to fight in order to make pretty pictures. But it is for the pretty pictures alone, not for any empire or conquest, that war is waged in movies and now. The post-war planning for Iraq and Afghanistan was abysmal, with fatal consequences for the lives of thousands. Emphasis was placed on the images of victory, with everything else a tiresome afterthought. Not incidentally, Stevens, the writer of this episode, was involved both in the election and re-election of President Bush.
Both myths are of central importance in talking about any modern depictions of the presidency, including this program; I now go back to the episode. The first notable point: indistinct from other movies and TV series on the american presidency, is the emphasis on symbols of wealth and power, and the underlying martial aspect of these symbols. The United States is a great military power, and the power of these symbols does not lie with the great intellectual ideas of the constitution, but often, the country’s lethal might alone. This, I believe, is not my reading or mis-reading this program – it’s explicitly stated.
A list of the following settings during the episode: a television interview with speaker of the House, Nathan Templeton; the Washington Monument; a motorcade; the inside of a limo in the motorcade; Air Force One, inside and outside; a motorcade again; inside of the limo again; a pricey hotel; Air Force One, inside and outside, under siege; a high tech command center set up inside the hotel; the inside of the White House during the party; the White House for the concluding family breakfast. The only exception to all this is the hotel kitchen, though even this embodies power, with a great, lengthy tracking shot that opens with the country’s vast bounty visible in a long line of desserts before zigzagging about following the president, her entourage, and her security detail.
A brief sample:
So, these are the symbols of a wealthy nation, but also one of great armed strength. As previously stated, these symbols are assumed to be something like a holy sword, somehow to be inherited only by the benevolent; the other assumption is that power, military power, exudes from these symbols, in this episode serving as an aphrodisiac in both plots.
In the first plotline, the president’s consultant, Dickie McDonald, has sex on Air Force One with a reporter, Isabel Rios, the plane itself serving as an incentive for the consummation.
I love this plane. Greatest political tool ever assembled.
KELLY LUDLOW [President’s press secretary]
What are you doing here?
It makes you sound powerful. Try it. “I just flew in from the East Coast.” Or: “I just flew in from the East Coast on Air Force One.”
You’re right. It does make you sound powerful.
A little later:
[It’s] the White House with wings. Ultimate home-court advantage. A symbol of power and grace.
Cut the sales pitch, Dickie. I already blew off the events. What are we doing here?
You tell me.
It is after this that they have sex.
This is mirrored in the White House, where the president’s children have a party. The White House here is both a sacred institution, but also a playland, a sort of combination of Disneyland and the Vatican. That this sacred magic is derived from its military aspect is introduced in this playful scene:
What would happen if I push that button?
I don’t know if I should tell you.
Come on. We won’t say anything.
You promise? OK. If you push that button, a signal is beamed to a secret satellite that sends a code to a special CIA computer that activates the launch sequence.
Like missiles and stuff?
Are you serious?
REBECCA pushes button.
The room’s lights come on.
Then, another one, where the President’s son tells a girl of there being a secret, second diversionary Oval Office, and makes a joke of trying to contact the Pentagon.
So this is the only one, right?
Actually, there’s two. One’s a double for security.
I knew it!
Get me the Pentagon!
White House operator.
Subsequent to this, just like on the plane, there is the implication that they have sex. Since our tender imaginations cannot conceive of those in high school taking this momentous step, it is more subtly implied than the event on the plane.
Another digression: that martial force is an expected part of the presidency, that it is one more pageant to be thrown by a leader, like the inauguration or the State of the Union, is shown in this casual line during the showdown over the attempt to destroy Air Force One:
JIM GARDNER [the Vice-President]
We could re-schedule the fundraiser.
SYNDI [fund-raising co-ordinator]
Are you kidding? This is front row seating to watch the president during a crisis. I mean, this is what they’re paying for.
Now, the second point: the observation of a strange paradox. It is military might which grants mystic power to these symbols, yet the military and secret service are prominent in this episode for being treated as a separate class which the mandarin ruling class, and the show itself, often views with contempt. The idea that there is no class structure in the United States is now extinct; watching this episode only sticks it further into the ground.
The very visual appearance of what might be considered a security servant class is distinct from the mandarins, the very way in which one relates to the other is distinct.
For instance, Nathan Templeton, speaker of the house, and Mackenzie Allen, president, are adversaries. Yet they share the same social codes, the same knowledge of politics, everything suggests a shared social experience of comfort. Templeton is very smart, eloquent, and witty. Despite their conflict, they speak to each other with a necessary civility. Both have a an appearance and bearing that is regal. I don’t choose the adjective idly. I imagined the possibility, very reasonable, I think, based on their similar manner, that later in the series we would discover that Templeton was in fact Allen’s father.
This image best embodies their shared place:
I contrast that to the portrayal of the security class; this shows up most prominently with the renegade soldier, but also with a run-in between the political consultant and a secret service man. The consultant and the reporter want to leave the plane, while the secret service man worries about the threat to their lives if they leave.
I’m walking off the plane. I’m gonna wave nicely at the bomber over there. Then I’m gonna go to the airport bar and have a gin and tonic.
I’m going too.
If you make us stay and this nut sets this thing off, my family will sue your ass off. And if he doesn’t, I will spend the rest of my life telling everyone how you held me hostage on Air Force One.
SECRET SERVICE AGENT
We’ve got a passenger coming off.
There is in McDonald’s speech an assumption that the secret service man is subservient to him. McDonald has the money and resources to sue the man. His word that he was held hostage by this man holds power; whatever rebuttal of the secret service man is of less worth. This has nothing to do with the respective aspect of their characters, since nothing we’ve seen of the secret service man is that he is anything less than honourable, and entirely with the classes they belong to. McDonald is eloquent and close to the levers of power, the secret service man is not.
Before arriving at the case of the veteran, it should be noted that the entire appearance of this security class, as well as that of a White House social director, a sort of security / handmaiden group, is distinct and apart from that of the leadership. The president, president’s husband, speaker of the house, the vice president, the press secretary, whatever their race and gender, are all soft featured, intelligent, and photogenic.
From top to bottom, images of the president, president’s husband, speaker of the house, vice president, and press secretary:
Those of the security class are entirely unhandsome, gritty, and hard. The social director, though attractive, has the fixed expression of an eternal scold. You’re certain while watching it that the actress must have at one point played a murderous governess. The members of the security class make me think only of one word: “subterranean”. A group of men who exist beneath the earth and make the machines function, they themselves unseen. There are two possible assumptions, possibly overlapping: that each group draws, or eventually molds one into, these particular physical types, or the aesthetic idea of having each member of a particular vocational class, whatever their variety, physically embody certain traits. Either way, I find, there is a sense of a separate but unequal, of two groups whose members are biologically destined, who can be found only in one grouping and never in the other.
A sample of the security and servant group. Greater emphasis will be placed later on the appearance of the renegade soldier, but I include him here as well (from top to bottom – a secret service agent, Secret Service agent Pete Ragone, the social director, the renegade soldier Frank Terzano):
This point was introduced as a paradox, but it is not a paradox specific to this show, rather, one common to movies and government. The military, as an abstract force, is to be respected and feared. To dissent from a war is to betray this noble force, and will be the target of fierce anger. The subject of soldiers now, after two wars, who return with little work available, sometimes homeless, often living in disturbing poverty, the very safety net they might require for survival cut to pieces – this is not a subject fit for discussion. Here, we may see again the convergence of the interests of Hollywood and Washington: there are countless movies detailing the awesome, merciless power of the military, while a handful of films, budgeted at pennies, are given to veterans living in poverty and neglect. This ignominy of the last is as common, if not more common, as the heroics of the first – it is only a case of what both groups, Hollywood and Washington, prefer to talk about, and what illusions citizens want.
I focus now on Frank Terzano, the rogue soldier who holds Air Force One hostage. We see him initially in full shot, then wearing mirrored glasses, then in fragments, a mouth, or an eye, until finally we are given his full face without glasses:
What I think is interesting is what the episode does not do here. Terzano is someone closer to ourselves, in terms of social position and income, than the president or her staff. As the episode progresses, we should have the uncanny sense not only of the soldier being more and more like us, but that our empathy is torn between him and the president; perhaps we may even feel an ever greater connection to this man than the distant leader. Again, this is not what takes place. The episode eventually makes clear why he commits this desperate act, but at the same time he is made into an almost subhuman creature. His appearance, in the fragments and when his full face is revealed, has the physical quality of a child – a bald baby head and pleading eyes. The little dialogue he is given is entirely emotion-riven, without any possibility of his making his case through eloquence or rational argument.
The details of the case are given not to him to convey, but exclusively to his doctor. Whether the assumption is that he lacks the intellectual wherewithal to discuss his wife’s medical condition, I have no idea. However, allowing him this would at least have given him a rounded humanity, an equality with the president and her staff, the possibility he could very well be a member of their families, or: that he’s an equal with members of the viewing audience, that he could very well be one of them, that he now lacks. An obvious place for dramatic tension would be between the actions of the president, correct given the circumstances, and empathy for Terzano, who may be entirely wrong but acts for just reasons – but this is entirely spurned. Instead, the tension lies with the myth mentioned earlier, that the president must be inherently good, and killing this man will besmirch this image of sacred goodness.
Two dialogue excerpts, the first time we hear Terzano’s voice, when he declares why he’s committing this rash act, and his doctor discussing his wife’s condition.
I don’t want to kill anyone. But I’ve tried and I’ve tried and now they’re gonna listen! I served my country for years. This is how they treat us? They’re just gonna let my wife die? She is down to 97 pounds.
DR. BERNARD HENDRICKS
I’ve had Betty Terzano as a patient for over ten years. About eight years ago, we discovered a stage-one colon cancer. Very early.
Early discovery and treatment work?
Isn’t that the point of me going through that humiliating ritual every year?
We were progressing in treatment and she was responding and then…Frank’s veterans health care was cencelled.
JIM GARDNER [Vice President]
As best I can tell, Frank Terzano was receiving VA benefits because he was classified as more than 50 percent disabled when he was discharged after Desert Storm.
No. He was hit by a vehicle in a staging area.
A tank backed into him.
Damaged his left leg. But he worked like hell in therapy and did all the right things.
He improved, so he was reclassifed as only 30 percent disabled.
Which dropped him out of priority one coverage and he lost his insurance.
ROD CALLOWAY [The president’s husband]
Doesn’t his current job come with health insurance?
For him. But not his wife because of her pre-existing condition.
It gets worse.
We found, when he did have insurance, that she only responds well to Zorbitux*. It’s a boutique, targeted drug that only works sometimes when nothing else does.
You said it gets worse?
Zorbitux costs $17,000 a month.
Next, a dialogue excerpt which is the only scene when Terzano is given the chance to speak at length. As stated, his dialogue makes me think of nothing less than a child, lacking the thought to do anything than express his most urgent want. President Allen, in turn, treats him as nothing more than such a child, not an equal with whom one gives an argument, or expresses shock that they have acted in such a manner, who must be cajoled through the carrot of patriotism, and the stick of death. It should be mentioned that patriotism goes entirely unmentioned in the episode until this point – the president travels to California for the material purpose of fund-raising; the various symbols in the episode owe their totemic power not due to national feeling, but the way they embody strength; the sexual power of the White House and Air Force One has nothing to do with the national feeling of the respective female conquests. “Absolutely nothing”, to quote President Allen, is offered to this soldier – this dumb sap will be gotten out of the plane through love of his country.
There is also this strange mirror, which I don’t think entirely co-incidental. As noted, the two episode plotlines both feature the use of national symbols as tools for sexual pursuit. There is a second symmetry: one also features a national symbol, a copy of the Gettysburg Address, nearly lost due to efforts of a child. The second features a national symbol nearly lost due to the efforts of – who exactly? A soldier, a man just like any other man, or another desperate child, a double to the the first plot’s troublesome child?
Mr. Terzano, this is the president of the United States.
I don’t believe it. Prove it.
No, Mr. Terzano, I don’t need to prove it. You need to listen. I’ve met with Dr. Hendricks.
You did? Did he tell you about my wife? How sick she is? He’s a very kind man. He tried to help us, but he couldn’t.
Yes, I agree, he is a kind man, and he cares about you and your wife. I’ve also looked into your situation and here is what I’m prepared to offer you: (beat) Absolutely nothing.
Nothing? What do you mean?
That’s correct, Mr. Terzano, absolutely nothing. I find what you’ve done outrageous and a complete abandonment of the principles you upheld as a member of the United States military.
I’m hanging up!
Mr. Terzano, if you hang up, one way or the other, you will be dead very shortly and your wife will be alone. Is this how you want your children to remember you? Not as a man who saved his country, but a terrorist?
I don’t know what else to do. I’m supposed to take care of her. Can you understand that? We tried everything. I let her down. So this is my only option.
Mr. Terzano, you have not served your country very well today. But there is reason to believe…that you have not been well-served by your country, either. If your country is at fault I promise to take the necessary steps…
I’ve heard all this before.
Not from me.
I can’t keep letting her suffer. I need guarantees that she’ll get care and…
This is not a negotiation, Mr. Terzano. This is a choice for you to make. Either you’re willing to surrender peacefully or this will end violently. If you care about your family, as I believe you do, you’ll save your life. It’s your best hope, sir. And, frankly, it’s your only hope. Good night.
Everyone off the plane?
Give him five minutes and then take your first clear shot.
A third and final point. The previously stated points are relevant to a consultant like Stuart Stevens because I think they confirm the lack of distinction between what is wanted by audiences not just in fictions about american presidents, but in presidents themselves. There is no dissenting or contrarian note in this episode from other similarly themed popular fictions. I do not believe this is a case of a political consultant submitting to the demands of the form, but demonstrating that what is wanted from a president is also wanted from the form, and the presidential candidate must also meet the standards of this same form, however wrong and inappropriate they are for a president. The investment of symbols of government with some mystic power, untied with the performance or aptitude of government, and tying this same mystic power with military might is extraordinarily dangerous, and any president who has an unquestioning belief in such connections, and employs them to strengthen his own presidency, is not a patriot, but a very dangerous man. This very fusion, however, is a commonplace of stories about american presidents.
Now, a third and final point specific to Romney, Stevens, and especially the centerpiece of the Romney campaign, his strange, ridiculous quest to end Obamacare. As stated, Terzano holds the plane hostage in order to pressure the government to get medical care for his wife after he’s found ineligible under their current insurance. The last lines in the episode about the man are these:
I want a report on what happened with the Terzanos. What? Why? Who’s responsible? I want a medical report on her condition.
KELLY LUDLOW [the president’s press secretary]
News is reporting offers of private donations willing to cover her costs.
I first make the small insight that this strange detail reinforces the mystic idea of martial power. By unflinchingly threatening this man until he surrenders, a bounty of funds and aid has emerged. From guns, come butter. Swords will not need to be transformed into plowshares, swords will summon plowshares from the ground. This, again, is the happy merger between Hollywood and Washington in image-making. Hollywood can make better movies about swords than wheat, Washington’s ruling class gains more right now from sword making and sword selling than wheat, so we have an agreeable illusion: swords, somehow, make wheat.
The other insight, directly connected with the Romney campaign is the following: it would seem that a military man, whose wife is in dire need because of the refusal of private insurers to provide coverage, which is then compensated for by citizens across the country offering to pay for her medical care, is a rather obvious endorsement of the very federal health care plan Romney and his campaign oppose. Observe: the episode makes clear that the market does not work in this case, with a valiant decent man unable to pay his wife’s medical bills. Observe also that these same medical bills are not the result of poor choices, but the capricious nature of illness itself. A third observation: that this man does not have enough to pay for the bills is not due to laziness or poor choices but honorable service in the military, and injury incurred while in service. This is not viewed as an incidental to life and the government, but an instance of a man who, in the fictional president’s words, has “not been well-served by your country”. That others are willing to cover this woman’s bills implies the very nature of public insurance: one contributes to a pool of money that will help with the injuries and illness of others, as well as possibly oneself at future point. That the donations come across state lines implies a federal plan, rather than one designed state by state.
I do think this is a very reasonable interpretation, though perhaps Stevens believes instead that the best approach to health care is to encourage persons to hold national monuments hostage until coverage of the showdown prompts others to pay their medical bills.
By episode’s end, I was left with the question, what does Stevens believe in, a public insurance plan or its fervent opposition?
My humble conclusion is that, as a political consultant, belief is his business, but this work is with making others believe, with himself believing in nothing at all. He is, not unlike most, if not all, political consultants, a dream-maker mercenary: when a television audience has a hope of political action over medical bills, he’ll happily offer those poor folks an illusion, and when partisans want the bogeyman of government health care destroyed, he’ll happily craft an illusion for those suckers as well. Like a smart bookie, he makes money whichever team holds the trophy. It will be of no consequence to this person whether Romney wins or loses, or what happens to the conditions of life for the needful and desperate in the United States. A man who can purchase eleven course meals can afford private health care that most of us cannot. If cities and country descend into sufficient misery, he’ll always be able to fly to somewhere else.
* I choose Woodrow Wilson not entirely arbitrarily; he participates in World War I, but this is a war entirely marked by a grim inertia. Visual heroics have been found in Afghanistan and Viet Nam, but almost none in this conflict. It was a war of creeping oblivion, troops locked in static points for much of it, without any possibility of conquest or great epic battle. It is possible to find something heroic in the charge up San Juan Hill, however ridiculous; not so much slow death by disease in a trench.
* I do not consider this idea of the presidency always choosing the righteous man and the idea of a later corruption by power in contradiction; I think there is a distinction between the virtuous man somehow found, then corrupted, and the less sentimental idea that the very process by which one attains political power very rarely requires virtue, and virtue is often an impediment. The best example I can think of the contrast in view is the grandest movie treatment ever given to the Nixon presidency, Oliver Stone’s Nixon, which took the approach of dramatic tragedy, a hero fatally flawed, who, despite these dooming flaws managed good work in the Mideast and China; this would be in contrast to the more conventional attitude that this was a man, who, given other circumstances, would have been just another mafia lawyer, a craven, oily sycophant drenched in self-pity, empty of significant idea or insight.
* Mitt Romney, presumably with some guidance from Stevens has recently assailed President Obama in the following terms (my italics): “Like his colleagues in the faculty lounge who think they know better, President Obama demonizes and denigrates almost every sector of our economy” (link). This program’s President Mackenzie Allen is a former University chancellor.
* A drug, I believe, that is entirely fictional, indigenous to this episode.
Images and script copyright ABC / Disney.