I've been watching the first year of "Borgen," a muchlauded Danish series hard to find in the U.S., that deals with political power, and politicians' psyches, more incisively and realistically than anything I can recall seeing. Its central figure is Birgitte Nyborg (Sise Babett Knudsen in a nuanced, charismatic performance), who is the head of the center- left Moderate Party, a mother of two, and involved in a passionately sexual marriage.
During the show's first few episodes she becomes prime minister of a coalition government with a very narrow majority, foreshadowing Denmark's first female prime minister coming to power in 2011.
The series subtly and without melodramatic violence touches on a variety of subjects, among them the role of women in politics, the devastating effect Nyborg's political office and its responsibilities have on her familial life - and what interests me most - the cost that exercising political power has on her ideals.
Nyborg is a thoroughly decent but also an ambitious and shrewd politician with a seductive smile who becomes more callous and also more effective as prime minister as she grows more comfortable with her authority. And there is no way that she can wield power without compromising some of her principles and humanity. She has to make choices that at times sacrifice friendships and betray political ideals. The series never simplifies the decisions she must make. For Nyborg to maintain her coalition in power and pass key policies, she must make a number of concessions.
Despite these compromises, Nyborg rarely loses herself completely in the political quagmire. And a number of good things do get enacted, such as successfully mandating gender equality on corporate boards. She is no saintly idealist, but a political pragmatist who gets down in the muck, and has a gift for cool negotiation - to my mind a truly sympathetic figure.
While watching the series, it struck me how much I have changed politically since the late '60s. Even then, I was never an ideologue - I voted for the craven Hubert Humphrey in 1968, and never marched chanting for a Viet Cong victory or to " Free Huey" - but I was more selfrighteous then about politicians who compromised, and had an unambiguous sense of who the good and bad guys were. It was also an era when I almost reflexively took leftist stands on issues ranging from the Vietnam War to anti- poverty programs, to urban crime, and I felt utterly virtuous in the process.
Those times are long past, and though there is legislation that I favor without qualification from gay marriage, to immigration reform, voting rights, food stamps and affordable housing, there are murkier issues I find myself ambivalent about. I also no longer demand that my politicians adhere to some Platonic notion of purity and consistency. I know they will be flawed and act at times in ways I don't approve of. If a variation or semblance of Birgitte Nyborg appeared, she would gain my enthusiastic support, but I know she is a fictional construct, and rarely does the real world grant us the option to vote for a politician as appealing as she is.
Still, I think we have a decent, honest, intelligent president in Barack Obama, who has drawn an almost impossible hand, with an opposition party committed to destroying him, leaving bipartisanship in tatters. However, if he does tend to be more cautious, less liberal, and much less gifted at political manipulation than the fictional Nyborg, I continue to generally respect and support him. His policies and actions can at times deeply disappoint me though.
For example, there are issues like national security and surveillance where Obama supports policies that I have always been of two minds about. Like many Americans after 9/11, I was apprehensive enough to be willing to sacrifice some of my civil liberties for feeling protected from the threat of terrorism. But despite my anxiety, I was troubled by what government surveillance would mean for the freedom of the press and our right to privacy.
The issue has come to a head recently with the revelation of the National Security Agency's spying. Obama has justifiably been put on the defensive for almost never veering from George W Bush's policies on national security. I understand how precarious the world our government operates in is, but that doesn't absolve Obama from censure for instituting policies shaped in secret sessions conducted by congressional committees, and secret hearings conducted by FISA court judges. I know achieving a balance between national security and civil liberties is no simple feat. But I also recognize there is something wrong when we learn that the NSA has without prior authorization, searched through millions of phone records and vast data bases containing emails, online chats and the browsing histories of millions of individuals.
Obama has responded to criticism by calling for a review of our surveillance programs "through an orderly and lawful process, rather than through repeated leaks of classified information." However, Obama was always in a position to call for an open discussion of these programs, but never did until the Manning/ Snowden leaks began. I'm far from expert on these matters, but I am conscious that the balance between national security and civil liberties is out of whack.
Still, disappointment with national security policy doesn't lead to my repudiating Obama or other aspects of his agenda. I accept the fact that in politics, as in our personal lives, we live in the realm of ambiguities and compromises where the ideal is never realized.
Leonard Quart can be reached at email@example.com