Friday, January 23, 2015

I’m All Right, Jack: “The West Wing” and the White House’s Big Block of Cheese Day

This past Wednesday,  the day after President Obama delivered his State of the Union message, was officially designated the White House’s second annual Big Block of Cheese Day. I found out about this much too late to throw a party. Still, I remain intrigued by the way contemporary American politics so often intertwine with showbiz. 

The State of the Union itself has a flashy side. There’s the dramatic entrance of the POTUS into the packed House of Representatives chamber, and the business of individual members of Congress either leaping to their feet, applauding madly, or scowling from their seats, depending on their party affiliation. President Ronald Reagan, our most obvious movie-star president, started the now entrenched custom of calling on average citizens, seated in the gallery, for well-timed cameo appearances.

But Big Block of Cheese Day is a much newer custom, a (pungent) part of the Obama legacy. The official White House blog announces that this is the day when senior members of the current administration take to social media -- Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Tumblr -- to answer substantive questions from the public. The blog explains that the event is planned as a “fromage” to President Andrew Jackson, who liked to promote democracy through up-close and personal interaction with his constituents. That’s why “on February 22, 1837, President Jackson had a 1,400-pound block of cheese hauled into the main foyer of the White House for an open house with thousands of citizens and his staff, where they discussed the issues of the day while carving off slabs of cheddar.”

The story of Andrew Jackson and the cheese is basically a true one: The Atlantic has thoughtfully explained on its site where that hunk of cheese came from, and why President Jackson was so desperate to get rid of it. But the true inspiration for the Obama event is an early episode of TV’s The West Wing  in which members of President Bartlett’s staff staged their own Big Block of Cheese Day, only to find themselves arguing public policy with wacko tree-huggers and UFO conspiracy nuts. So the current Big Block of Cheese Day has major show-business roots.  That’s why several prominent members of the West Wing cast have joined with White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest in a video promoting the creative spin added by the Obama-nation. Funny? You feta believe it.

Meanwhile, the always-combative New York Post is raining on the victory parade of an actor honored for playing a politician. Kevin Spacey, accepting his Golden Globe for House of Cards, recounted an inspirational anecdote involving his final visit to an ailing Stanley Kramer, whom he hailed as “one of the great filmmakers of all time.” The audience was visibly moved. Not so the Post’s Richard Johnson, whose Page Six column was headlined “Kevin Spacey’s Golden Globes Tribute Raises Eyebrows.” Harkening back to the blacklist era, Johnson accuses Kramer of cowardice for his treatment of partner Carl Foreman who was called before the HUAC while High Noon was being shot. In Johnson’s words, “Kramer wanted Foreman to name names. When Foreman instead pleaded his Fifth Amendment rights, he was forced off ‘High Noon,’ and Kramer was credited as the movie’s producer.”

Johnson’s source? Lionel Chetwynd, whose Darkness at High Noon documentary makes Foreman out to be a hero and Kramer a deep-dyed villain. But Chetwynd is hardly without strong biases of his own. The matter was far more complex than he makes it out to be, and Johnson’s recycling of Chetwynd’s canards at this late date seems unnecessary . . .  and more than a bit, well, cheesy.


  1. Big Block of Cheese Day? Who knew?

    I agree that Mr. Johnson was a little cheesy there.