A Small Group of Thoughtful, Committed Citizens
Kathryn Klein's, contribution to our third print issue.
Let’s face it. 2017 was a hard year. 2018 is looking even more difficult. We turn on the news every morning or, more likely, we scroll through our news feeds and almost go numb to everything. On a daily, and sometimes even hourly basis, we are bombarded with stories of horrible tragedies in a political climate in which every issue is partisan. We have cemented the notion that if someone doesn’t agree with you then they are the enemy. We’ve all dug our trenches, decided our beliefs are unequivocally superior and at this point, it almost feels like a stalemate. We crouch in our bunkers and wait for the Midterms. And yet, I find solace in a vestige of the 90’s: Aaron Sorkin’s political masterpiece: “The West Wing.”
Late on November 8th, 2016, I anxiously watched as the numbers rolled in. My phone was flooded with texts and, as the situation looked more and more dire, each message said something like, “it’s fine, we still have California.” But when it became clear that even all of California’s electoral votes could not help, I shut my laptop, and stopped picking up my phone as it was inundated with terrified messages. I began, in some feeble attempt at escapism, to rewatch my favorite show.
As a tired liberal, “The West Wing” is a soft blanket. When everything looks too terrible, I close tabs for the New York Times and the Washington Post, and I open up Netflix. I curl up in the warmth of President Josiah Bartlet’s honesty and moral compass, Sam Seaborn’s optimism and idealism, and C.J. Cregg’s confidence and brilliance. And, while “The West Wing” is a way out, a window into a fantasy world, a liberal dream even before President Trump was elected, it has a powerful, enduring relevance. I dare you to watch an episode and, ignoring the pagers and clunky desktop computers, not swear it could be airing on television now.
One episode that always strikes me pertains to terrorism, something that is tragically becoming a more frequent facet of daily life. Many professional politicians struggle to capture the complex relationship between Muslim terrorists and the religion they claim to serve. I’ve never seen this captured more aptly than in “The West Wing”. In an episode in season three, the Secret Service is forced to put the White House on lockdown while a group of high school students were being given a tour of the historic building. As they wait, huddled in the White House mess hall, Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman asks the bright group of adolescents to ask him any question. After a nervous silence, one boy asks him, “Why is everyone trying to kill us?” When several students posit that “It’s Arabs” or that “It’s Islamic,” Lyman corrects them, scrawling an analogy on the lone whiteboard: "Islamic extremist is to Islamic as _________ is to Christianity." After fielding several incorrect guesses from the class he writes in, “the KKK.” This episode originally aired on October 3rd, 2001, unsurprising given that the episode is clearly colored by proximity to 9/11. And yet, almost 17 years later, I have yet to hear someone more accurately and clearly demonstrate that crucial dynamic.
The show is also accurate, almost to a disappointing degree, in its portrayals of racial profiling. I say disappointing because it is frustrating and disheartening to watch as our nation continues to reckon with issues that we clearly recognized almost twenty years ago. In one episode, the President’s pick to fill a Supreme Court vacancy, Judge Roberto Mendoza, is arrested while driving with his wife and son. The police officers, unaware of who Mendoza is and his political stature, claim that he was driving under the influence. However, as Deputy Communications Director Sam Seaborn reveals to the officers later in the episode, “Judge Mendoza has chronic persistent hepatitis which is a non progressive form of liver inflammation. If he’d had enough to drink to blow a point one on the blood alcohol - he’d be dead right now.” When the question arises as to why he was really pulled over, Seaborn guesses, “driving while being Hispanic.” This line hits startlingly close to home as many African Americans today are antagonized for simply barbecuing, swimming, sleeping, and more. It even sounds just like the popular hashtags criticizing this issue, such as “living while black.”
But, beyond its accurate depictions of the racism and terrorism that we sadly continue to deal with today, “The West Wing” is crucial and uplifting in the characters that fill it’s episodes. The President is deeply passionate and his decisions are rooted in strong moral conviction. Those that surround him meet his high moral standard and are each brilliant and qualified. Sam Seaborn, a personal favorite character of mine, is so desperately needed today, equal parts idealistic, optimistic, and imbued with a vigor for even the smallest job. At one point, he spends hours drafting an elaborate birthday message for a low level government officer of little import, a job assigned to him as simply busy work. Claudia Jean Cregg, the Press Secretary, is an amazing role model for young girls (and boys). She is not only excellent at her job, she is whip smart and hilarious. She is a multifaceted, layered, and nuanced female character, and we still need more like her.
Furthermore, beyond the incredible characters, "The West Wing” is a true testament to the concept of compromise. Last August, a piece came out in The Washington Post bearing the headline, “The Last Thing America Needs is More of ‘The West Wing.’” In the piece, author Alyssa Rosenberg supports this claim with the notion that, “the brand of technocratic, sometimes smug liberalism that defined “The West Wing” has taken such a hit that returning to it would seem more delusional than escapist.” However, rather than portraying liberal democrats that were smug and superior, Sorkin’s characters show an extraordinary proclivity for compromise. When two seats open up on the Supreme Court at once, an unprecedented opportunity, the White House nominates one Liberal justice as expected, but also puts forth a Conservative pick for the second seat. In another episode, while hiring a lawyer to work for the White House Chief Counsel’s Office, the Administration selects Ainsley Hayes, a conservative North Carolina Republican initially modeled after Ann Coulter. Her character demonstrates how, despite disagreeing personally with many other members of the administration, they still chose to hire her because she is smart, qualified, and genuinely cared about the work that she did.
Finally, the Washington Post is the furthest from the truth when they suggest that, “Sorkin stories such as “The West Wing” and “The American President” were based on the assumption that Americans wanted their leaders to be frank about the facts. Trump turned this model around by suggesting that the truth that had been suppressed was different from the wonky details and stirring appeals to our better angels that Sorkin’s characters tend to offer. He co-opted Sorkin’s style and applied it to different and darker ends.” However, suggesting that Donald Trump is anything like Sorkin’s fictional Presidents is beyond wrong and the issue here is that Rosenberg simply doesn’t get it. Yes, Americans do want their leaders to be frank about the facts and yes, this is something that President Trump frequently claims to do. Yet, to suggest that these characters, rather than our current President, offer “wonky details” and twist the facts is laughable. If President Trump is borrowing a notion from Sorkin, then he is co opting and distorting it, demonstrating a need for “The West Wing’s” characters, rather than a reason to shut them down. Rosenberg goes on to wonder about what will happen, “if liberals don’t accept that we need to find a Trump of our own to compete on the new terrain of American politics.” But Michelle Obama’s words “when they go low, we go high” ring beyond true. Just because they are doing something wrong does not mean we should lower ourselves to meet their standards. We should not turn away from characters that show us this higher option.
At the end of the day, all I can tell you about this show is “res ipse loquitur”. Just watch it. Watch it because it feels good to see politicians caring. But it isn’t just escapism. Watch it because it shows you what we deserve. The leaders we deserve. And watch it because even amidst the most draining, frustrating storm, it keeps me motivated. Seeing people that truly care makes me even more determined to put those people in office. President Bartlet said, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world." Watch it because we need that group now more than ever.