Jewish World Review Sept. 23, 2003 / 26 Elul, 5763

Bernadette Malone

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‘K Street’ will reinforce American cynicism | Watching Howard Dean on the premier of "K Street" pretend for the cameras to be a Democratic Presidential candidate (which he is in real life), pretend to learn debate techniques from James Carville (which he did in real life), and pretend to attack President Bush (which he does in real life), makes one wonder why a man who is campaigning to become President of the United States isn't busy enough, content enough or simply secure enough just to run his race in real life.

Apparently Dean is as easily seduced by Hollywood as Bill Clinton.

HBO's newest Sunday night show, "K Street," is producer George Clooney's bizarre blend of fantasy and reality.

James Carville and Mary Matalin play themselves — he's a Democratic strategist in Washington; she's a Republican one, and they give the squabbling married couple performance they often give on NBC's Meet the Press.

But instead of owning a chi-chi restaurant in downtown Washington, as the wealthy couple does in real life, they run a fictitious bipartisan consulting firm. To Matalin's chagrin, Carville winds up coaching Howard Dean for a Presidential primary debate held in Baltimore (which took place on Sept. 9 in real life).

Viewers watched Howard Dean mock the flap over civil unions in Vermont behind closed doors, attack Bush on Iraq policy, and catch heck from Joe Lieberman (who, to his credit, appears only on Fox News Channel video footage) for trying to distance the United States from Israel.

(Show topics will be selected every Monday, and filming will take place during the course of the week to enhance the show's real-time Washington effect. If 24-hour cable news seems like 51 percent news and 49 percent entertainment, "K Street" is 51 percent entertainment and 49 percent news.)

But civil unions, Iraq policy and Israel's security are all weighty issues, the last two of which are costing American lives on almost a daily basis while Clooney and his cast clink celebratory champagne glasses at The Palm on 19th Street N.W.

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It's not as though Clooney's cameras are capturing honest footage of Washington for a C-SPAN documentary. However educational the insider view of Washington may turn out to be, Clooney's making an entertainment series to rival NBC's brilliantly written — and entirely fictitious — West Wing.

It's all a little too flippant, and the extremely cheeky participation of Howard Dean, who was the star of the debut, in this cable TV drama indicates he might be getting a little too big for his britches. Is it really responsible to turn Iraq, Israel and gay marriage into fodder for a show that is half-soap-opera, half-reality television?

Other politicians have cameo appearances in the series premiere as well. Matalin's Republican partner approaches Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and Oklahoma Sen. Don Nickels to assure them that Carville's relationship with Dean won't affect the firm's bipartisanship.

Both Republican senators are their usual nice-guy selves, albeit a bit too smiley and awkward in front of the camera. Neither is the ham Dean is, and neither aspires to run the country as Dean does.

Dean's performance could make a seasoned Washington cynic even more cynical. It's already easy to detect that politicians' bon mots and stirring speeches are planned and rehearsed 1,000 times before they are unleashed in the public. In its informative role, "K Street" certainly confirms how artificial political rhetoric is by spotlighting the debate prep a candidate undergoes and the ad lib lines he is fed by consultants.

If the show were a behind-the-scenes documentary about this staged process — which seems so far removed from the democracy the Founding Fathers imagined — at least one could credit its educational value.

But by glamorizing the artificiality of the Presidential selection process, and then heaping more artificiality onto it by introducing fictitious characters and conversations to real life events that transpired a mere week ago, "K Street" reinforces the notion that politics in Washington isn't about truth-seeking, reflection and conscience. It's about making money, game-playing and ego.

Hollywood East, Washington is sometimes called. "K Street", with Howard Dean's eager cooperation in its debut, tries to make that unfortunate appellation sexy.

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09/09/03: When real life starts to imitate virtual reality, itís time to reboot

© 2003, Bernadette Malone