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Opinion: The Sitcom President And The Reality Show President

President Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy speak during a meeting in New York on Wednesday, on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York City.
Saul Loeb
AFP/Getty Images
President Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy speak during a meeting in New York on Wednesday, on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York City.

President Trump stepped into the role of a tycoon on a television reality show before he was elected president of the United States. The path of President Volodymyr Zelenskiy of Ukraine may be even more improbable.

Mr. Zelenskiy played Vasyl, a nebbishy high school teacher who lives with his parents in a cramped old Soviet-style apartment, in a television series called Servant of the People.

One day, Vasyl erupts with an impassioned classroom harangue about Ukraine's pervasive corruption. "I'm sick and tired of it!" he exclaims. "Do you know why we have a dog's life? ... These bastards come to power and steal and steal and steal!"

A student posts the video of his teacher's rant. It goes viral and is seen by millions of Ukrainians — who elect Vasyl president.

That scripted tirade helped make Servant of the People a hugely popular show.

That popularity led Mr. Zelenskiy to form a political party called Servant of the People and to actually run for president of Ukraine. Life imitates sitcom.

Vasyl, the sitcom character, was elected with 67% of the vote. The actor Volodymyr Zelenskiy got 73% of the vote this spring to become the real president of Ukraine, too.

President Zelenskiy, whose words appear in the summary of his July 25 call with President Trump, doesn't sound much like the anti-establishment agitator he once played.

He flatters the powerful U.S. president, telling him how he once stayed in Trump Tower, and extols his political skills.

"We used quite a few of your skills and knowledge and were able to use it as an example for our election," President Zelenskiy tells President Trump. "We are trying to work hard because we wanted to drain the swamp here in our country. ... You are a great teacher for us and in that."

What you may see in his words is another performance.

Mr. Zelenskiy is no longer just a sitcom president. He is the elected leader of a needy country that sits next door to a ferocious Russia that seized Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 — and now aids paramilitary groups in eastern Ukraine.

He spoke with President Trump as Trump was holding back almost $400 million in aid.

So when President Trump tells President Zelenskiy, "I would like you to do us a favor," was a reality show president telling a sitcom president, in language from a melodrama, that there would be a price for the aid his country so urgently needs?

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Simon
Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.