Politics got you down? Try a little West Wing therapy

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Jimmy Smits and Alan Alda, from the live debate in Season Seven of The West Wing (photo courtesy of Mitchell Haddad/NBC)

“My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over,” Gerald Ford declared in 1974, after being sworn in as the 38th president of the United States. The current presidential election campaign—which has been far from a clean, issues-oriented matter—strikes me as something of a nightmare, and I’m tempted to say that it’s almost over, but the thing about nightmares is that you never really know where you are. Admittedly, the campaign itself is nearing its end. But where the vote count is concerned, anyone who expected to learn the outcome on the night of November 7, 2000, was frustrated in the extreme, and something of the kind may happen again. And when the election finally is settled and a new president takes office, who knows what will follow?

Recently, I indulged my desire to get out of this bad dream by rewatching, via Netflix, a good deal of The West Wing, the idealized, articulate, and high-minded drama of executive-branch politics created by Aaron Sorkin, which began in 1999 and ran for seven seasons. No doubt some potential viewers objected to it on the grounds that politicians don’t talk like this, act like this, think like this. That’s valid as an observation, not as a criticism. People seldom talk like Shaw’s characters either. This isn’t the place for an extended defense of Sorkin, or of Shaw, or of any of the other writers who have presented us with something other than kitchen-sink naturalism. Perhaps the simplest answer to the “People don’t do such things” objection occurs in the Ibsen play in which that line appears; Judge Brack says it in Hedda Gabler, but the rejoinder—Hedda’s death by her own hand—has already occurred. People do do such things (whether it’s suicide or the dance of ideas), some people, some of the time, and even if they didn’t there’s no reason we shouldn’t imagine it.

The West Wing gives us an extended portrayal of how we might like to suppose affairs are conducted in the West Wing of the White House: by knowledgeable, intelligent, committed, hard-working people who walk fast, talk fast, and juggle more important matters in a day than many of us even think about. More to the point just now, it also gives us a very attractive alternative to the current campaign, in the form of a contest to replace second-term Democratic president Josiah Bartlet that begins unfolding in the middle of Season Six and runs throughout Season Seven.

Unlike The West Wing’s earlier presidential election, the show’s final campaign pays a good deal of attention to its Republican candidate, Senator Arnold Vinick, who’s a plausible though moderate conservative, experienced and principled, still energetic though no longer young, and personally appealing—he’s played by Alan Alda. Vinick serves as an ideal challenger to the Democratic candidate, who isn’t chosen until the end of Season Six and who turns out to be a young Hispanic congressman from Texas, Matt Santos, played by Jimmy Smits. The conduct of their campaign doesn’t, to put it mildly, resonate very deeply with the one currently being conducted, but there are many parallels. A lot of maneuvering takes place at one of the conventions. One of the candidates clashes with his party’s national committee, and a campaign manager gets replaced. There’s an episode-long debate, which was performed and broadcast live. An unexpected development does serious damage to the standing of one of the candidates. And as Election Day nears, both campaigns marshal legal teams and prepare to contest the results. Given the uproar over Donald Trump’s refusal to accept our election’s outcome in advance, you might think such a thing were unheard of, and yet here it is in plain view on The West Wing; what’s more, it’s hard not to believe that every campaign since 2000 has made similar plans.

The parallels aren’t surprising. All along, The West Wing presented a superstructure of idealism (left-leaning idealism, in case it needs to be said) built atop a solidly realistic foundation. The credits throughout its seven seasons abounded in consultants with practical knowledge of what happens, who does what, and how things work in the White House, people such as Dee Dee Myers, Gene Sperling, and Patrick Caddell. By design, it was very like the real thing in outline, however little it resembled the actual news we see and hear.

It was more than good television drama with a sprinkling of humor. It was persuasive, shaping not only the thinking but also the career choices of many young people who saw it. In 2012, Juli Weiner, then a writer for the Vanity Fair website, contributed an article to the April issue of the print magazine that surveyed the show’s influence. Weiner spoke to a congressional reporter who, during college in the late aughts, would assemble with friends for what she called “West Wing therapy nights.” (Obviously, I’m not the first to have that idea.) And Weiner spoke to a young White House staffer for whom the show set a standard:

“Yes, the show was sexier, faster-paced, and more idealistic than Washington really is, but what’s wrong with that? We should aspire to do big and ambitious and idealistic things in this country—even if it takes longer than one hour, or one season.”

In the final section of her article, Weiner points out a discrepancy: people working in government (at least those she interviewed) have a higher view of what they’re doing than almost anyone outside it. She quotes the observation of a House Oversight Committee staffer that though “the people that get the headlines represent the worst [in politics], by and large, people are doing it for the right reasons.” Then she cites a 2011 Gallup poll’s finding that 81 percent of Americans were dissatisfied with government—which, she said, was a record at the time her article went to press.

That situation continues. In a New York Times op-ed essay headlined “In Defense of Politics, Now More Than Ever,” posted online yesterday, contributing opinion writer Peter Wehner reports,

According to a 2015 Pew Research Center survey, trust in government is at one of the lowest levels in a half-century. Almost three-quarters of Americans believe elected officials put their own interests ahead of the country’s interest. Much of the public has utter contempt for the political class.

Wehner makes a number of proposals. We should keep our expectations in check; if we expect anything like perfection from our elected leaders, we’re bound to be disappointed. We should listen to those with whom we disagree, because we might learn something; he quotes Montaigne to good effect. We should abandon the belief that one person can fix everything; Wehner criticizes Donald Trump for inviting this, but there are limits to the powers of the presidency, no matter who occupies the office (in a 2008 book, Andrew Bacevich said the president inevitably becomes “the betrayer of inflated hopes”). Wehner ends by arguing that we should view politics in moral terms, as a means of making incremental improvements in our lives:

“Political activity is a type of moral activity,” the British political theorist Bernard Crick wrote in “In Defense of Politics.” “It does not claim to settle every problem or to make every sad heart glad,” he added, “but it can help some way in nearly everything and, where it is strong, it can prevent the vast cruelties and deceits of ideological rule.”

It’s curious that technology has become a field that claims, just as loudly as politics if not more so, to be the route to making the world a better place. We ought perhaps to question the technologists’ claims, or those of anyone who intends to bring about a wholesale transformation in the world. James Gleick makes that point, unexpectedly but sensibly, in his recent book on time travel (which, as often with Gleick, is about more than his title suggests). A recent New Yorker review of books on utopian communities argues it as well—utopias, on any scale, have often led to calamity. But these are subjects for another discussion.

Zen master Hakuin Zenji proposed (according to this book by a practitioner) that in any endeavor, one needs great belief, great doubt, and great determination. For many of us these days, doubt sits on the doorstep, waiting to be brought in with the paper, or it revives with our first glance at the phone or the computer—if indeed it ever leaves us. Belief can be harder to come by. If your idealism needs a boost, I suggest you pop a West Wing pill. Weiner ends her article this way:

We’ll leave the floor to [Mayor Bloomberg staffer] Micah Lasher: “At a very elemental level, episode after episode, you’d finish watching feeling truly inspired. You can’t say that for a lot of television—and you can’t say that of a lot of politics.” But, Sorkin and his acolytes would argue, you can say it about some politics.

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