- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 1, 2009

POLITICAL THEATER Column:

President Bartlet, acting president while the other guy is in Europe, stomped up to Capitol Hill on Tuesday to demand passage of the Employee Free Choice Act, arguing that the freedom to form a union is an inalienable right for Americans.

And he should know: holding both a master’s degree and a doctorate in economics from the London School of Economics — he even won a Nobel Prize — President Josiah Bartlet is now in his 10th year as the nation’s top executive, even though NBC kicked him out of office in 2006 after a seven-year run of “The West Wing.”

“Since we’ve been off the air, I’ve been affectionately known far and wide as the former acting president,” said the actor-president, Martin Sheen.

But the actor-activist and avuncular agitator didn’t seem to know his lines during a brief Q&A session with reporters. Sitting at a conference table in Sen. Edward M. Kennedy’s Russell Building office, Mr. Sheen/Bartlet at times looked a bit like his character in later episodes, when multiple sclerosis made him a bit foggy.

“We all know that in the workplace there’s such intimidation when, uh, a union organizer, uh, shows up or, uh, tries to, um, get people interested in, uh, uh, organizing,” Mr. Sheen said before stopping to ask a reporter, “Why are you asking this question?”

After another stammering answer, his former White House deputy chief of staff, Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford in real life), broke in to do what he often did on the popular TV show — speak for the president. Or not.

“I’m not speaking for Martin,” he said quickly. “Please do!” laughed a relieved Mr. Sheen, “and quickly, too!”

“OK. The notion that the labor movement is out to abolish their own members’ rights to a secret ballot just doesn’t pass the laugh test,” Mr. Whitford said articulately. “And the people that are propagating the rumor that it does, their sudden compassion for workers’ right is just not believable.”

The Employee Free Choice Act is a top priority of organized labor and almost unanimously opposed by business groups. The heart of the bill — known as “card-check” to its detractors — would allow unions to organized a work site if more than half of the employees merely sign a card in support, instead of by a secret ballot.

Both Mr. Sheen and Mr. Whitford looked the part of politicians: dark suits, crisp shirts, smart ties, shiny dress shoes. But Mr. Whitford had clearly immersed himself in his character, at one point joking that deregulation had put America in the position where “we can’t do anything until we talk to our banker in Beijing. … It’s like [conservative novelist] Ayn Rand got loaded and woke up next to [liberal economist John Maynard] Keynes,” he said.

So just what makes the TV actors experts on unions? Plenty, they said.

Mr. Sheen, born Ramon Gerardo Antonio Estevez, supported the 1965 farmworker movement with Cesar Chavez (although the actor didn’t join Mr. Chavez in his commitment to live in voluntary poverty). And he once created his own union.

At 13, he started what turned out to be the first union for golf caddies at a country club. “The strike lasted 48 hours and the union lasted 72, and I was sent home for a week,” he said, addressing a room packed with star-struck staffers and a few lawmakers, including Sen. Barbara Boxer, California Democrat

The day was heavy on partisan politics, with Mr. Whitford drawing hearty applause when he said, “I promise you on the lives of my children, we will never, ever celebrate Grover Norquist Day,” referring to a leader of the conservative anti-tax movement.

In a lighter moment, Mr. Whitford — whose character was said to have been modeled after Rahm Emanuel, now President Obama’s real-life chief of staff — said, “Should I tell my Rahm joke? OK, How do you ask Rahm what time it is? ‘What time is it, or should I just go to hell?’ ”

Asked later if he was really like the legendarily foul-mouthed Mr. Emanuel, he leaned across a table and with a smile said, “[expletive] no.”

A handful of actual workers were on hand to talk about the bill, but no one paid too much attention to the security technician from Louisiana or the nurse from Arkansas. When asked if any of the 30 reporters had a question for them, the room fell silent.

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