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IOWA: President Bartlet Hits the Trail | The Nation

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John Nichols

John Nichols

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IOWA: President Bartlet Hits the Trail

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa -- President Josiah "Jed" Bartlet's name cannot be found on the list of candidates contending on Monday for votes at Iowa's first-in-the-nation Democratic presidential caucuses. But he is the star of this campaign season.

Everywhere Bartlet goes in Iowa, he draws the biggest crowds. When he steps onto a stage, people start chanting "Bartlet." Reporters hang on his every word. Children ask for his autograph. Adults want to know his thoughts about the war in Iraq, the Patriot Act and religion in politics.

Bartlet is, in every sense, the man of the moment.

Unfortunately, he is also a fiction.

"President Bartlet is a fantasy," explains actor Martin Sheen, who plays the character on the NBC political drama, "The West Wing." "Howard Dean is a reality."

Sheen is an enthusiastic supporter of the former Vermont governor, who is locked in a tight four-way contest going into Monday's caucuses with former House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry and North Carolina Sen. John Edwards.

The latest Reuters/MSNBC/Zogby Poll, released Saturday morning, has Kerry with 23 percent, Dean with 22 percent, Gephardt with 19 percent and Edwards with 18 percent. That represents a slight drop for Kerry from the previous day's polling, no movement for Gaphardt and last-minute surges for Dean and Edwards.

Dean will try to improve his position Sunday, with a quick trip to Plains, Georgia, where he is scheduled to attend church with former President Jimmy Carter. Getting a blessing from the man who put the Iowa caucuses on the map when he scored an upset win here in 1976 --and who remains popular in the first-caucus state--is seen by Dean strategists as an extension of their Iowa campaigning. They hope to get a bounce on Monday, when pictures of Dean and Carter will, undoubtedly, be splashed across the front pages of caucus-day newspapers.

But Dean may end up getting just as much of a bounce from another "president."

As the caucuses approached, "West Wing's" Sheen left sunny southern California for snowy Sioux Falls, Mason City and Davenport, where he campaigned almost as vigorously as the candidate himself.

In Iowa, where campaigns that could be made or broken by Monday's voting are pulling out all the stops, celebrity backers are turning up even in the smallest towns. The candidates hope that a little star power will sway wavering Democrats in their direction.

The fast-finishing campaign of John Kerry dispatched songwriter Carole King to make the pitch for him in a Dubuque coffeehouse and an Indianola living room, where she autographed albums, played "You've Got a Friend" on the host family's piano and exclaimed that, "The beauty of this, for me, is coming into a real American town meeting." Dennis Kucinich campaigned across the state last year with country singer Willie Nelson and will close his pre-caucus campaigning by taking the stage Sunday night with a singer half Nelson's age, Ani DiFranco, in Des Moines. Even Dick Gephardt has been appearing in the closing days of the campaign with a "star" suitable to the labor-backed candidate's union hall rallies, International Brotherhood of Teamsters President James Hoffa Jr., the son of legendary labor boss Jimmy Hoffa.

In New Hampshire, the first primary state, filmmaker Michael Moore is expected to hit the trail for retired Gen. Wesley Clark Saturday. And there is talk that Clark might yet get the biggest of his superstar backers, Madonna, stumping on his behalf.

But only one candidate for president has a "president" working the campaign-trail as his surrogate. And, even if he is a make-believe commander-in-chief, Bartlet, er, Sheen is making the most of his association with the White House.

This veteran star of stage and screen knows exactly how to deliver an applause line.

"As the acting president of the United States, I am here to announce that next Monday, Jan. 19, is Howard Dean Day in America!" Sheen declared in Council Bluffs. He said pretty much the same thing in Cedar Falls. And in Cedar Rapids. The response was absolutely consistent: Thunderous applause.

For Sheen, however, this is not just a theatrical performance.

A veteran campaigner for peace and economic justice, the actor got involved in politics long before writer Aaron Sorkin put him in charge of the West Wing. Sheen was an outspoken foe of former President Ronald Reagan's funding of military dictators and Contra rebels in Central America in the 1980s. He has been arrested more than once in protests against weapons systems and the arms race in general. He has marched with farmworkers, trade unionists and antiwar activists. And he is no stranger to the real world of electioneering. He campaigned across the country for Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore in 2000. And he was one of the first prominent players in Hollywood to endorse Dean for the Democratic party's 2004 nomination.

Sheen announced his support for Dean a year ago, when the Vermonter barely rated an asterick in most polls. Like the vast majority of Dean's early backers, Sheen was attracted by the candidate's outspoken opposition to President Bush's preparations for war with Iraq. Sheen, who appeared in a MoveOn.org-sponsored television commercial encouraging Americans to lobby Congress to block Bush's invasion plans, says, "Dean was against the war when we needed someone. That's why I'm with him now."

Sheen delights in Dean's angry denounciations of "Republican-lite" Washington Democrats who have compromised with the Bush administration and the GOP leadership in Congress. Pointing to the fist-pumping, ready-to-rumble crowds at a Dean rally in Des Moines. Sheen declared, "This is the Democratic party I was born into. The party was taken away from us, and now we're getting it back."

Counting himself in with the army of Dean volunteers that has swarmed over the first-caucus state, including large contingents from surrounding states that began arriving by the busload Saturday, Sheen echoes the just-short-of-messianic language of the former Vermont governor's most fervent backers. "We've awakened a movement," he says. "And we've made this election meaningful -- a real referendum on the direction of our country."

Sheen dismisses charges that Dean is too volatile, or too extreme in his style or his stands, to beat Bush next November. "These guys in the White House are in for a surprise if they think they're going to roll over this guy," says the actor, who has no problem with Dean's much-discussed anger. "Anger moves you to justice," says Sheen. "It's a great energy, and it allows you to do great good."

So, is Dean comparable to President Bartlet?

"There are a lot of similarities," Sheen says, noting that the president he plays on TV is, like Dean, a New Englander with a penchant for making bold, often controversial, statements. But, he adds, "President Bartlet is a fictional character. Howard Dean is a reality. And that makes all the difference in the world."

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