Tale of Two Presidents

THE WEST WING — NBC Series — Pictured: Martin Sheen as President Josiah Bartlet — Warner Bros. Photo

From this morning’s New York Times, just in case you missed it…Aaron Sorkin mixes real life with his own characters. Even if you’re not much interested in U.S. politics, the dance between reality and fiction is fun.

Two Presidents, Smoking and Scheming

By 

AFTER the debate, I was talking to Aaron Sorkin, who was a little down. Or, as he put it, “nonverbal, shouting incoherently at a squirrel, angrier than when the Jets lost to the 49ers last Sunday without ever really being on the field.”

Aaron was mollified when he learned that President Obama, realizing things were dire, privately sought the counsel of a former Democratic president known for throwing down in debates. I asked Aaron if he knew how the conversation between the two presidents had gone and, as it happened, he did. This is his account.

The lights from the presidential motorcade illuminate a New Hampshire farmhouse at night in the sprawling New England landscape. JED BARTLET steps out onto his porch as the motorcade slows to a stop.

BARTLET (calling out) Don’t even get out of the car!

BARACK OBAMA (opening the door of his limo) Five minutes, that’s all I want.

BARTLET Were you sleepy?

OBAMA Jed —

BARTLET Was that the problem? Had you just taken allergy medication? General anesthesia?

OBAMA I had an off night.

BARTLET What makes you say that? The fact that the Cheesecake Factory is preparing an ad campaign boasting that it served Romney his pre-debate meal? Law school graduates all over America are preparing to take the bar exam by going to the freakin’ Cheesecake Factory!

OBAMA (following Bartlet inside) I can understand why you’re upset, Jed.

BARTLET Did your staff let you know the debate was gonna be on television?

OBAMA (looking in the other room) Is that Jeff Daniels?

BARTLET That’s Will McAvoy, he just looks like Jeff Daniels.

OBAMA Why’s he got Jim Lehrer in a hammerlock?

BARTLET That’s called an Apache Persuasion Hold. McAvoy thinks it’s the responsibility of the moderator to expose — what are they called? — lies.

WILL (shouting) Did Obama remove the work requirement from Welfare-to-Work?!

LEHRER No!

WILL And you didn’t want to ask Romney about that because? It would’ve been impolite?!

BARTLET Let’s go in another room, Mr. President. You want a cigarette?

OBAMA I stopped smoking.

BARTLET Start again. (Leading the way into his study) I’m a father of daughters, you’re a father of daughters. It looked to me like right before you went on stage, Sasha told you she likes a boy in her class who has a tattoo.

OBAMA That’s not what hap —

BARTLET Here’s what you do. You invite the boy over for dinner, you have a couple of fellas from your detail brush their suit coats back just enough so the lad can see the .44 Magnums — problem solved. You have what every father of a daughter dreams of — an army and a good dog.

OBAMA The girls are fine, that wasn’t the problem. In the debate prep we —

BARTLET Whoa … there was prep?

OBAMA (shouting) Enough! (taking a cigarette and lighting it) I appreciate that the view’s pretty good from the cheap seats. Gore chalked up my debate performance to the altitude. He debated at sea level — what was his excuse?

BARTLET They told you to make sure you didn’t seem condescending, right? They told you, “First, do no harm,” and in your case that means don’t appear condescending, and you bought it. ’Cause for the American right, condescension is the worst crime you can commit.

OBAMA What’s your suggestion?

BARTLET Appear condescending. Now it comes naturally to me —

OBAMA I know.

BARTLET It’s a gift, but I’m likable and you’re likable enough. Thirty straight months of job growth — blown off. G.M. showing record profits — unmentioned. “Governor, would you still let Detroit go bankrupt as you urged us to do four years ago?” — unasked. (shouting) I’m talkin’ to you, too, Lehrer!

WILL (in the other room) I got him, sir!

BARTLET All right! (back to OBAMA) And that was quite a display of hard-nosed, fiscal conservatism when he slashed one one-hundredth of 1 percent from the federal budget by canceling “Sesame Street” and “Downton Abbey.” I think we’re halfway home. Mr. President, your prep for the next debate need not consist of anything more than learning to pronounce three words: “Governor, you’re lying.” Let’s replay some of Wednesday night’s more jaw-dropping visits to the Land Where Facts Go to Die. “I don’t have a $5 trillion tax cut. I don’t have a tax cut of a scale you’re talking about.”

OBAMA The Tax Policy Center analysis of your proposal for a 20 percent across-the-board tax cut in all federal income tax rates, eliminating the Alternative Minimum Tax, the estate tax and other reductions, says it would be a $5 trillion tax cut.

BARTLET In other words …

OBAMA You’re lying, Governor.

BARTLET “I saw a study that came out today that said you’re going to raise taxes by $3,000 to $4,000 on middle-income families.”

OBAMA The American Enterprise Institute found my budget actually would reduce the share of taxes that each taxpayer pays to service the debt by $1,289.89 for taxpayers earning in the $100,000 to $200,000 range.

BARTLET Which is another way of saying …

OBAMA You’re lying, Governor.

BARTLET “I want to take that $716 billion you’ve cut and put it back into Medicare.”

OBAMA The $716 billion I’ve cut is from the providers, not the beneficiaries. I think that’s a better idea than cutting the exact same $716 billion and replacing it with a gift certificate, which is what’s contained in the plan that’s named for your running mate.

BARTLET “Pre-existing conditions are covered under my plan.”

OBAMA Not unless you’ve come up with a new plan since this afternoon.

BARTLET “You doubled the deficit.”

OBAMA When I took office in 2009, the deficit was 1.4 trillion. According to the C.B.O., the deficit for 2012 will be 1.1 trillion. Either you have the mathematics aptitude of a Shetland pony or, much more likely, you’re lying.

BARTLET “All of the increase in natural gas has happened on private land, not on government land. On government land, your administration has cut the number of permits and licenses in half.”

OBAMA Maybe your difficulty is with the words “half” and “double.” Oil production on federal land is higher, not lower. And the oil and gas industry are currently sitting on 7,000 approved permits to drill on government land that they’ve not yet begun developing.

BARTLET “I think about half the green firms you’ve invested in have gone out of business.”

OBAMA Yeah, your problem’s definitely with the word “half.” As of this moment there have been 26 recipients of loan guarantees — 23 of which are very much in business. What was Bain’s bankruptcy record again?

BARTLET And finally?

OBAMA Governor, if your ideas are the right ideas for our country, if you have a plan and it’s the best plan for our future, if your vision is the best vision for all of us and not 53 percent of us, why aren’t you able to make that case in the same ZIP code as the truth?

BARTLET And?

OBAMA Tell John Sununu anytime he wants to teach me how to be more American he knows my address for the next four years. He used to have an office there before he was fired.

BARTLET You picked a bad night to have a bad night, that’s all. You’ve got two more chances to change the scoreboard, and Joe unplugged should be pretty good television too. Make Romney your cabana boy in New York.

OBAMA Got it.

BARTLET (taking the cigarette out of OBAMA’s hand and stubbing it out) These things’ll kill you. Pull McAvoy off Lehrer on your way out.

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