Keith Carradine, 68, who broke out as the star of the LBJ-teasing 1967 hippie musical Hair, grew up to earn an Oscar, an Emmy nomination and the job of President Conrad Dalton on CBS’s hit Madam Secretary. He tells AARP what it’s like to run the world.
Is Madam Secretary set in an alternate universe, like The West Wing?
The conceit is that we’re maybe five years ahead of where we are right now as a country. However, a lot of issues we deal with are current, both socially and geopolitically.
So how does it feel to step into Martin Sheen’s shoes?
Ha ha ha! I’m a huge fan. Marty is a friend, but what’s required of me is different. We’re not about the West Wing, we’re looking at Washington from the point of view of the secretary of state [Téa Leoni]. But we like to present ourselves as aspirational. This is how things ought to be. We like to believe that everything is dealt with by rational, reasonable adults.
Our 38 million AARP readers include conservatives, liberals and independents. What is President Dalton?
We’ve never labeled him. I don’t think we’ve ever used the words Democrat or Republican.
But what’s his ideological niche?
I’d say he’s either a RINO [Republican in name only] or a Blue Dog Democrat ... somewhere in the middle. He has a sense of tolerance regarding social issues, probably a fiscal conservative, advocating for a strong military. Having been director of the CIA, all of that fits into who he is.
What is his demon? What drives him? He reminds me of the British leader in Yes, Minister, always trying to do stuff, but things get in the way.
Well, that’s the world, isn’t it? He wants to make the country a better place, encourage the citizenry to look to their better angels, as Lincoln said. Yeah, you’re cloaked with immense power, but you’re surrounded by all these checks and balances. There’s an overall thrust behind our show: We’re all in this together, we need to reach across the aisle to have a conversation and not just keep labeling each other. Because you get nowhere doing that. In every national disaster, nobody stops to ask, “Who did you vote for?” before they pull you into the lifeboat. That’s just not who we are. Dalton’s biggest frustration is that he’s often thwarted by raw partisanship and all the worst aspects of the culture of D.C.