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California and the West | CALIFORNIA ELECTIONS / PROPOSITION
36

Fictional President Uses Real Bully Pulpit

Martin Sheen, head of state on 'West Wing,' films ads battling a plan to send drug offenders to rehab instead of prison.

October 18, 2000|JENIFER WARREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — It's campaign season, and who could be a better spokesman for your cause than the president everyone loves?

No, not that president; he's iffy in the credibility department. We're talking about Bill Clinton's prime-time rival, the Oval Office occupant on one of TV's hottest shows: "West Wing."

Before long, some Californians will see President Josiah Bartlet--a.k.a. Martin Sheen--take on a new role as airwave attack dog for foes of Proposition 36, one of this year's most controversial ballot measures.

The initiative, leading in the polls, would send nonviolent offenders convicted of drug possession into treatment instead of prison, providing $120 million a year to help them get well.

In a 30-second commercial previewed for reporters, Sheen calls Proposition 36 "dangerous" and says it "opens the door to fly-by-night treatment with no accountability."

"My heart breaks for drug addicts and their families," the actor says with the no-nonsense style of his popular TV self. "But Proposition 36 won't help them."

Sheen is honorary chairman of the no-on-36 campaign, and analysts say putting him on TV is a smart move. Not only does he have celebrity appeal, but his son, Charlie, has fought a well-publicized battle with drugs.

Father Sheen says it took the threat of jail to set his boy straight. He dislikes Proposition 36 because it would prevent judges from jailing addicts who relapse unless they repeatedly violate probation, are considered dangerous or prove to be not amenable to treatment.

"In our People magazine culture, I'm sure Sheen's family experience [with drugs] is pretty well known," said Don Sipple, a GOP media consultant. "That makes him a pretty credible spokesman on this."

Supporters of Proposition 36 hold a different view. They call Sheen's position "a tragic mistake" and question why the actor opposes a measure that would help poor offenders get the kind of treatment his son was able to afford.

They also say they will counter his ad with one featuring a Carson physician, Dr. Gary Jaeger, who treats drug addicts. The goal is to contrast "the actors and cops who oppose Prop. 36 and the doctors who support it," said Dave Fratello, a campaign spokesman.

"Our message is that treatment works and that Proposition 36 brings long overdue funds into the system, giving thousands more people the chance to turn their lives around," Fratello says.

Neither ad has aired yet, and, unless fund-raising by Proposition 36 foes picks up quickly, viewers in California's biggest cities may not see the Sheen spot. As of Oct. 1, the no-on-36 side had raised only $215,000--scarcely enough to air the ad a handful of times in medium-sized cities. The yes-on-36 campaign has raised about $2.8 million.

A spokeswoman for the anti-36 camp said strategists hope to maximize the ad's effect by showing it during the "West Wing." But fans of the Emmy-winning show might be disappointed by the ad, which lacks the sort of drama bubbling on the series each week.

The commercial features a plain head shot of Sheen in a blue, open-necked shirt, sitting in a studio--rather than, say, his desk in the make-believe White House.

While short on theatrics, the spot is likely to work for many viewers because Sheen's character is so charismatic, said Barbara O'Connor, director of the Institute for the Study of Politics and the Media at Cal State Sacramento. Indeed, as a fictional president who exudes warmth, smarts and good judgment, he's even better than the real commander in chief, she contended.

Clinton "has too much baggage, particularly on issues of morality," O'Connor said. "With Sheen they get a likable guy with nonpartisan appeal."

Meanwhile, NBC, the host network for the hit show, seems unconcerned that Sheen's ad appearance might detract from his credibility as a television president.

"Martin has always been very political, and we knew that when we cast him in the show," said Shirley Powell, an NBC spokeswoman. "I think most people separate Martin Sheen the actor from Martin Sheen the man."

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