Why a big block of cheese is trending in Washington

The White House revives a fictional tradition in a masterful exercise of public relations

Josiah Bartlett might be the only fictional president to effect political change in the actual White House.

Martin Sheen’s character on The West Wing, the darling of real-life liberals when George W. Bush served out much of his two terms, loved to think of himself as a man of the people. Bartlett occasionally forced his staff to endure a tradition that had them sit in a room and listen to ordinary Americans with wacky ideas that sometimes turned the world on its head (figuratively, of course). Another example:

Bartlett’s effort to throw the doors wide open paid homage to former president Andrew Jackson, who once trucked in a 635-kg block of cheese and ate it with any outsider who wished to share an idea or opinion. Thus was born Bartlett’s Big Block of Cheese Day, dreaded by fictional West Wing staffers and celebrated by the show’s fans.

Last year, in the ultimate political expression of truth that’s stranger than fiction, the real White House launched its own virtual Big Block of Cheese Day. The project was a bit of fun in a complicated, aggressive political arena. The day after last year’s State of the Union Address, West Wing staff each took shifts answering questions on Twitter—#asktheWH—in a bid to paint themselves as transparent and accessible.

Apparently, the whole exercise was a success. The joke, and the hashtag, are back for a second year. The SOTU address is planned for Jan. 20, and staff are again taking to Twitter. It’s easy public relations for a White House that can use some easy public relations.

Many of The West Wing‘s beloved characters are in on the joke. The actors all take turns, using their real names, play-acting in pump-up videos for the virtual revival of a TV show’s quirky attempt at public engagement. The liberals, or anyone else who loved The West Wing, will eat it up. The whole thing won’t likely make much of a difference to most ordinary Americans who have a bone to pick with their government, but that’s not really the point. After all, the hashtag is already trending.

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