Easy Chair — From the May 2013 issue

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From Scandal, the hit ABC series about a high-powered D.C. fixer, one expects better. After all, it is based on the real-life experiences of Judy Smith, who served George Bush the Elder as deputy press secretary and helped sell the country on Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas.

Unfortunately, Season 1 of Scandal turns out to deal pretty much exclusively with sex scandals — plus more sex scandals, followed by sex-related fallout. The main thread concerns a lowly White House staffer who has had an affair with the president, or at least claims she has. Should this dalliance become known to the public, we are assured, it would compel the president’s immediate resignation. No need for lies told to grand juries or any such complexities: You screws, you lose.

The show’s central character, who is herself having an intermittent affair with the president, is one Olivia Pope, principal of a crisis-management consultancy. Her associates include ace lawyers, a former CIA agent who can hack into anything, and various other vaguely brilliant people. Pope, played by Kerry Washington, is supposed to be a phenomenal image wrangler and a healer of damaged souls.

Pope’s main superpower is her “gut.” This faculty, she informs us in the first episode, “tells me everything I need to know.” I had hoped that invocations of the intestinal infallibility of D.C. figures might cease forever after the gut-directed disasters of the George W. Bush Administration. Perhaps Olivia Pope is allowed to revive the cliché because her other power steers her in the opposite direction, toward extreme rationalism. Which is to say, she can talk really rapidly, which makes whatever she is saying seem highly persuasive.

[2] Along with coproducing Scandal, Smith runs a crisis-management firm in Washington whose clients have included Monica Lewinsky and Michael Vick. She is also the author of Good Self, Bad Self: Transforming Your Worst Qualities into Your Biggest Assets.

Olivia Pope’s firm is supposedly modeled after Judy Smith’s, but what it truly resembles is Jack Abramoff’s, which was once regarded as the one-stop shop for all your legislative and media-manipulating needs.[2] Pope has a superbly Abramoffian moment when she first terrifies the president’s rumored love interest — threatening to out the staffer for her multiple sexual partners, her mother’s mental illness, and “that ugly bout of gonorrhea” — and then, a little later, signs her up as a client.

Alas, the similarities end there. Scandal gives us scandal after scandal while scarcely mentioning, say, lobbyists or defense contractors. We never even see Pope get paid, let alone funnel checks through a steeplechase of shell corporations and phony think tanks. No, in standard TV fashion, she must wear the white overcoat of moral and political virtue.

And so things generally work out the way they should. The closeted gay man who is wrongly accused of murder is acquitted once he acknowledges his gayness; the prostitute turns out to have a heart of gold; the wife of the monstrous South American tyrant abandons him during a state visit to Washington. As it happens, the defection of this caudillo’s wife allows Pope to lay out her political philosophy in some detail. Surprise: it’s mostly about the liberating power of celebrity culture! “She seems weak now,” says Olivia to the dictator, speaking (very rapidly) of his asylum-seeking spouse:

But she is smart. She is powerful. And smart, powerful women like Carolina, they don’t curl up and hide when they’ve been wounded. They strike back by writing memoirs and appearing on talk shows and at benefits and on red carpets, talking about women’s rights in the developing world, and how babies were ripped from her arms by a ruthless dictator.

That’s how change happens — by way of famous people strutting down a red carpet while the cameras tape and the millions gape.

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