Presidential Age-Off: Bartlet v. Roslin

Two of my all-time favorite television shows are Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing and Ron Moore’s reboot of Battlestar Galactica. Interestingly enough, at the heart of both shows is a strong vein of politics played both fairly and deceptively (not that big a surprise from the former show, but a lovely layer of the latter that made it such a pleasure to watch).

Both shows also featured presidents, one of the United States and one of what’s left of the 12 colonies of Caprica. Martin Sheen played U.S. President Jed Bartlet, a bright beacon of hope during the dismal darkness of the real Bush II presidency. Mary McDonnell portrayed Laura Roslin, former Secretary of Education who found herself thrust into the presidency when all in line before her were killed in the Cylon attack on Caprica that started the BSG journey.

Beyond the obvious similarities, both of these presidents held health secrets from their constituents. Bartlet had relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis. By the end of the show, the disease was causing a rapid and noticeable decay of his body.

In the very first episode of BSG, Roslin learns that she has terminal cancer. By the end of BSG…well…like I said, she had terminal cancer. I’m sure you can figure this one out on your own.

Now even under the healthiest situations, a president always leaves his station looking much more bedraggled and aged than he did coming into it. Look at recent evidence. Du(m)bya left looking much older than the actual numbers of his age (or his IQ). And the only way Clinton was still feeling young at the end of his presidency was when he was groping up interns in the Oval Office. Several have even pointed out that Obama is already starting to show more gray than he did prior to January 20, 2009.

Add the strain of an incurable disease and you’re bound to look even more wrung out, right? Certainly was the case with President Bartlet.


In the beginning, he was a middle-aged statesman, with still dark hair and minimal lines to his face. He was commanding and centered and the White House was bright with hope in his presence. By the end, however, he’d gone gray with white at his temples, the lines had deepened, his stance slouched and aided by a cane, and the brightness of his new administration slowly dimming to a close (aren’t these photographers just too clever?).

Yes, I’m sure that some of this was makeup decisions done to enhance the strain of both being president and fighting a once relapsed illness that is now making up for wasted time.

BUT…then there is Laura Roslin.


To borrow that ridiculous BSG epithet: What the frack?!

Seriously, I cannot even begin to express the joy I felt inside when I saw Mary McDonnell that first time as Laura Roslin. It had been a while since I had last seen her, and then there she was, wrinkles and crow’s feet, and looking absolutely beautiful. Even better, she looked REAL. And I was filled with so much hope and happiness that here was an actress who was embracing her age and all the lines that came with it, and doing it with incomparable grace.

This second photo is how she appeared in the final season. You could bounce a quarter off her face, it’s so tight. Dull, expressionless forehead. No more lines around her eyes or her mouth. What you don’t see in this photo, but what was depressingly obvious in the show, is the fact that this “youthful” appearance came with a price. One side of her mouth droops now as though she’s had a stroke. Her eyes also don’t always blink synchronously anymore.

This was supposed to be a woman who was leading the remnants of a destroyed world through the unknown dangers of space while fighting a seemingly unstoppable Cylon enemy and being slowly consumed by incurable cancer. But this is how she looked at the end. Yes, they did her up on the show with pale makeup and a “cancer” wig (which is what she’s wearing in this second photo). But that face…

It was perfectly acceptable to show the progression of age and illness with Bartlet, but Roslin not only had to lead the colonists to earth, but she had to do it while apparently paying regular visits to Doc Cottle for galactic Botox injections. Maybe he was really just injecting her cancer treatments straight into her face and this was the end result.


Obviously, what I’m really doing at this point is screaming into the roar of the Hollywood machine that makes women feel less than publicly acceptable if they dare show even one shadow of an age line on their face. How else can we explain this recent photo of the now perpetually surprised Jessica Lange? Would you have even known this was Lange had I not identified her? I sure as hell didn’t recognize her without a caption.

And why is this acceptable? Because we’ve got fat tubs of douche like Rush Limbaugh clogging up the airwaves with “relevant” questions like is this country ready to have to watch Hillary Clinton age if she became president. Newsflash, Tubby: You’re not looking any younger (or thinner) yourself.

We all get old. It’s a fact of life. I’m in my early 30s, but I can see time leaving little trails across my face. Wrinkles around my eyes, parenthetical lines on each side of my mouth, a bagginess to my eyelids. Who gives a shit? The lines come from living, and I’d far rather have lines than not live. And guess what? You can tighten your face to the point of splitting in two and it’s not going to fool the Reaper.

For two seasons, Mary McDonnell made me so very happy when I would see her very real and very beautiful lines. I can’t say that I blame her or fault her for her decision to join the plastic posse. I can’t imagine the pressure she and her female acting peers must feel to constantly look 25. But just once, I’d like for an actress to just flip the double bird and embrace her age and all that it brings with it—the wrinkles, the bifocals, the gray hair, the works.

I know she’s out there. When I find her, maybe we can share some laughs and a few Activia yogurts…