Sheen puts his education before real-life politics

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The Independent US

The US President has had enough. He is leaving the White House and will instead concentrate on improving his education - something he readily admits is lacking. As a sign of his new-found dedication to learning, he will travel to Ireland and enrol at university. Philosophy and English literature will be his thing.

Yes it is true, gentle reader. But only in that parallel world of Washington politics known as the West Wing. With the final season of the popular television series drawing to a close and with a successor having been elected to succeed (fictional) President Josiah Bartlet, the actor who plays him has decided to go back to school.

In that odd interface of reality and entertainment, Martin Sheen, 65, who has played President Bartlet for a full seven seasons, was urged by figures within the Democratic Party to make a real-life run for the Senate seat in his native state of Ohio. "I'm just not qualified," he reportedly said. "You're mistaking celebrity for credibility."

Some would argue that Sheen's strident opposition to the war in Iraq and championing of human rights would make him an ideal Democratic candidate in autumn's Congressional elections. But Sheen, who says he only barely managed to complete high school, has instead decided to study at the National University of Ireland (NUI) Galway. In addition to literature and philosophy, he hopes to study oceanography.

No one from the university was available for comment yesterday but sources suggested Sheen had been in discussions with admissions authorities for some time. His mother is from Tipperary. "I'm very serious about it," he said, following a ceremony last week at the NUI Dublin where he received an honorary arts degree. He said he feared he may become a "distraction" to other students.

In the US, the West Wing's final series is drawing to a close - and stop reading now if you do not want to know the identity of President Bartlet's successor. The drama has focused on the showdown between the Democrat Matt Santos, played by Jimmy Smits, and the Republican Arnold Vinick, played by Alan Alda.

One suspects that the majority of fans of the West Wing also tend not to be fans of real-life President George Bush. A comment one often hears is that the show is simply too good to be true. What if there was a progressive liberal president who anguished about brandishing America's might rather than blurting out comments such as "bring 'em on"? What if, what if?

It may come as little surprise that in Sunday night's episode the election was won by the Democrats. This was not the outcome that scriptwriters had intended, originally planning to have the Republicans win.

Lawrence O'Donnell, the executive producer, told The New York Times that following the death of John Spencer, who played Democratic running-mate Leo McGarry, the producers decided it would be too much to deal with his loss and the loss of the election in one episode. In Sunday's episode the Democrats scraped a victory after the race came down to the outcome of just one state - Nevada. There are a further five episodes to be shown, including that of Leo's funeral.