Donna Brazile Opens An Ethics Can Of Worms On “The Good Wife”

Is this the real Donna Brazile or the fake one?

The increasingly common practice of using real political figures playing themselves in dramas made me queasy from the beginning, and now I know why.

“The Good Wife,” CBS’s excellent legal drama now highlighting that network’s Sunday nights, has made such blurring of the real and fictional something of a trademark, featuring such real-life political power-player as Fred Thompson and Vernon Jordan in past episodes, not merely in cameos, but participating in substantive scenes as their real-life selves. Last night, Democratic Party strategist Donna Brazile, who had earlier in the day participated in Christiane Amanpour’s roundtable on ABC, played herself in the episode’s fictional meeting between her and  Eli Gold (Alan Cumming), the ethics-free campaign manager for the Good Wife’s Creepy Husband, Peter Florrick (Chris Noth). I must say, Donna Brazile made an extremely convincing Donna Brazile. She has a future in acting, as long as she can play herself. The problem is what fictional Donna Brazile told fictional Eli Gold, and the immediate, and confusing real life ethical issues it raises.

Gold was trying to persuade alternate-universe Donna that Florrick would be a perfect keynote speaker at the Democratic National Convention next year. To begin with, this is nutsy-cuckoo in the extreme. Florrick is a former convict who was caught cheating on his wife in the arms of a hooker. For Fake Brazile to even entertain the notion as she does—the equivalent of Real Donna Brazile saying, “Yes, that Eliot Spitzer is just the image we want for the Democratic Party!” —– casts both the real Brazile and the real Democrats she represents in a bad light. Did she clear this appearance and its content with the party? If so, the party elite were insane and incompetent to approve it. If not, she breached a duty.

But, as Al Jolson used to say, “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet!”

Later in the conversation, Fake Brazile, convincingly played by Real Brazile, expresses reservations about Florrick because of rumors she has heard about his shaky relationship with his Good Wife, Alicia. “I hear they are separated, “ she says, “and if I am hearing it, so are the Republicans.” When Gold protests to Brazile that the Republicans wouldn’t be able to hurt Florrick with the issue, Brazile says, “The Republican would do what we would do: release the story right before the convention.”

Interesting. In 2000, shortly before the election between George W. Bush and Al Gore, whose campaign was run by Real Donna Brazile, documents were leaked to journalists showing that Bush had a D.U.I arrest before he was elected governor of Texas. The timing was perfect for Gore, and almost certainly was the reason the razor-thin margin in the popular vote ended up with Gore being ahead of Bush. Bush had little time for damage control, and the revelation almost changed the election. As it was, it was almost certainly responsible for the electoral vote mess, as well as unintended consequences such as the polarization of the electorate, the de-legitimizing of Bush’s presidency by Democrats, the increase in public cynicism about Democratic institutions, and conservative efforts to delegitimize Bush’s successor, President Obama.

It was a dirty trick that worked, a classic October surprise.  The Presidency should not be decided because of a decades old drunk driving conviction of a politician who no longer drinks. Because it was a dirty trick, Al Gore—and Brazile— denied that the leak came from his campaign. I never believed that, and today almost no one does. I also believe that Fake Donna’s statement on “The Good Wife” was the equivalent of a confession that she was lying in 2000….because “what we would do,” as Fake Donna said about the alternate universe Democrats, is what Real Donna and the Real Democrats did.

The tactic, just to be clear, is unfair to both the public and the candidate. If there is information about a candidate that is germane to his fitness for office, the media and the public should know about it as soon as possible. Holding information like that and releasing it at the last minute deliberately  limits the candidate’s ability to defend himself, and the public’s opportunity to consider the revelation’s significance.

But what is a fair approach to statements made by a real life individual playing herself in a scene that plausibly parallels her real activities? This is a new area, raising questions we’ve never had to consider before. Such as:

  • Should Brazile playing Brazile be treated like any other actor? After all, we don’t presume that actors are speaking for themselves when they deliver scripted lines. Nevertheless, my tentative answer to this question is no. Brazile may be acting, but she is also, by her willingness to deliver the lines, tacitly approving Fake Donna’s portrayal of Real Donna’s character and views. Would Real Donna, playing  Fake Donna, deliver the line, “I sure wish we had that Peter Florrick running for re-election instead of that dud Obama!” Well, why not?  Because she knows that it would be attributed to Real Donna, and cause a political firestorm. She knows, or should know, that what she says as Fake Donna will have consequences for Real Donna. That makes it different from any other actor delivering lines.
  • What are the ethical obligations when a real political figure portrays himself or herself in a fictional context?  I’d say,

1) Don’t say anything as their fictional alter-egos that would be inappropriate to say in real life. The public can’t make the distinction between the two, and shouldn’t have to.

2) Don’t do or say anything that might prove embarrassing to those whom you work with or subject them to suspicion.

3) Don’t do it. Period.

I think that the blurring of entertainment and politics, fiction and reality, delivering lines and lying outright, is already at a dangerously toxic level. I’m sure it is flattering and fun for Brazile to be asked to play herself on “The Good Wife,” but it does no good, and risks considerable harm. If Fake Donna says that Democrats play dirty, I know that Real Donna has agreed to say the words, which mean to me that she is telling the truth. That is a confusing, messy, cowardly way to announce that you made a fiasco out of a Presidential election and lied about it later and would do the same thing again…if that is indeed what she was admitting. I’m not completely sure it is what she was admitting, because I’m not sure what she thought she was admitting. She needed to think about it, and if she didn’t, that was incompetent of her.

The best way to deal with the ethical maze created when politicians portray themselves is to stop it.

6 thoughts on “Donna Brazile Opens An Ethics Can Of Worms On “The Good Wife”

  1. Money or no money, why do people(athletes, politicians, and other famous people that we see enough of already) that are not actors want to be in movies or tv as themselves? With today’s society, people believe what they see. It also gives more ammo to the critics, pundits and conspiracy theorists. Many of them like that game, dot-to-dot.

  2. What about situations where it is clear that a politician is making fun of him- or herself? If a politician appears in a comedy, then it should be clear that what they are saying does not represent their true beliefs. I bring this up because this is something Canadian politicians do fairly frequently.

    • I don’t think that raises the same issue; I don’t think its a good idea, nevertheless. I think it diminishes trust in the government’s integrity for elected officials and high officials to engage in any kind of acting at all. I didn’t much care for it way back when Tip O’Neill did a TV ad—Bob Dole for erectile dysfunction was a low. But I concede that this battle is lost.

      • …and you should never ever EVER watch Futurama.

        Interestingly, I just saw “Weird Al” Yankovic playing himself on last night’s How I Met Your Mother. Fictional 1980’s Al (complete with Al disguise: glasses and mustache) did something that Real Al never does: take a song idea from a fan.

        I bring this up because it’s interesting how your analysis is still applicable, though less so since we’re talking about a comedian on a sitcom versus a political strategist on a drama.


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