It's not as though I've been going out of my way to find analogies between the 2008 election and soaps. But some have been hard to miss. Peggy Noonan let one loose on Meet the Press: While discussing the operatives of both campaigns she said, "I have the sense sometimes lately that these guys on the plane think history is their plaything."
Of course, Noonan was talking about the liberties political candidates have always taken with history - theirs and their opponents. This year is no different, although there seems to be consensus that the Republicans are doing it more often than the Democrats. But that's politics. For soap opera fans, "history is their plaything" refers to the liberties TPTB take with stories going back decades. Sometimes it's a total rewrite of a show's history - the reversal of Erica Kane's abortion on All My Children is perhaps the most egregious example - but there are others. More often, it's returning characters who bear absolutely no resemblance (physical or otherwise) to the character who left.
This usually happens when the returning character is played by a different actor. When TPTB are not invested in a show's history they seem to feel that a new face means a new character; so Adams Hughes leaves Oakdale a sweet-natured film student and returns a manipulative sexual predator; Alison Stewart leaves town to help her boyfriend care for his sick mother and returns a meth-head porn star - no explanation provided. Even when the original actor comes back things don't always work out; witness Scott Bryce's short-lived return as Craig Montgomery last year.
But while TPTB may not be invested in a character's history, fans are. Not surprisingly, there's plenty of bitching and moaning; some fans will shrug with a resigned, "Oh well." Some will stop watching. And some will try to make sense of why the character has so changed: wondering what could have happened off screen, speculating about what might be revealed down the road, which all too often winds up being absolutely nothing.
The need to understand what has happened when a person changes so dramatically runs deep in our DNA. And so it is with John McCain. Newspaper columns and blogs are filled with pundits trying to figure out how the honorable, principled, straight talking John McCain of 2000 morphed into the John McCain of 2008 Gail Collins described in The New York Times as "a cranky android."
Of course, while Collins said she first noticed the shift back in the spring, the questions began in earnest after McCain selected Sarah Palin as his running mate. (And just as an aside, doesn't the Palin phenom recall the irritating habit soaps have of hiring inexperienced, though not necessarily untalented, newcomers, paying them scale and having them dominate screen time until fans are so sick they scream for mercy - or just keep their finger on ff?)
But Sarah Palin is only the tip of the "What's happened to John" story. The real story is the kind of campaign he's been running. Carl Bernstein put it well: "McCain, is, in fact, running the kind of campaign against Barack Obama that George Bush ran against him in 2000, which he regarded rightly as dishonest, dishonorable and diversionary in terms of the truth about him and about the nation's problems." A recent Rolling Stone piece suggests that perhaps the John McCain of 2000 was a calculated construct, and history shows that what we're seeing now is the real John McCain.
I've been perseverating about how McCain could hire Tucker Eskew, widely believed to be the architect of the 2000 smear that suggested that the Bangladeshi girl the McCain's adopted was really McCain's out-of-wedlock, mixed-race child. The smear cost McCain the Republican nomination. Not surprisingly, Cindy McCain was deeply wounded, some say bitter, and who can blame her. One can only image her reaction when her husband told her he was hiring Eskew; it must have been quite a scene.
And then there's the fact the John McCain seems to change his mind - a lot: he's suspending his campaign, but not really; he's not going to the debate, then he goes. The Nation speculated, "In fact, he has so loosed the surly bonds of consistency that you've got to start wondering if there's some deeper meaning behind the constant double-talk." I've been wondering the same thing about ATWT's Holden who's been alternating between telling Lily how much he loves her, then chasing after Carly, then telling Lily how much he loves her, then... Sometimes, a couple of cycles within a single episode.
In fact, the transformation of John McCain (or non-transformation if you believe the Rolling Stone piece) is the stuff of great soap opera. It's soap opera writ large. But if the John McCain story were being played out on most of today's soaps the actor playing him would likely be as confused as Jon Hensley, who plays Holden, often appears to be; because if there is some "deeper meaning behind" the constant double talk of many of today's soap characters, it's eluding the fans, and I expect many of the actors, as well. The fans would be told, "take it or leave it." The declining soap opera rating suggest that many are leaving. How voter respond to the McCain transformation, we won't know for another month.
As citizens, we do not have the right to know every last detail about candidates' lives; but we do have the right to know how candidates' experiences, good and bad, shaped them into the person running for office. And when a candidate's history is rewritten (by them or their opponent) or ignored, pundits and bloggers provide a valuable public service by searching for the truth because as citizens, we share (or should) the realization that to understand what is happening and what will happen requires knowing and understanding what has happened; while the stakes may not be as high as the election, the same is true for soap opera storytelling.
So while Peggy Noonan was clearly not referring to soaps when she said of political operatives, "History is not their plaything," TPTB of today's soap operas would do well to heed her words.
© 2008 Lynn Liccardo
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