Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The West Wing, leadership, and how easy it is to offend the Right

I've been watching The West Wing again.  We got rid of cable, so my wife and I now spend that time watching TV on DVD.  It actually seems pretty silly.

Perhaps the most amazing thing to me about the show is that it seems to be a show about leadership.  We get to see how people act when times are good and bad.  We get to learn about repercussions and expectations.  And more to the point, the show was perpetually timely.  Watching the first season, you just know that it is 1999-2000.  You can feel it in your bones.  The issues they are discussing, the popular wisdoms, and even the way the parties respond represents that time period.  It is a wonderful time capsule.

As I watch through the seasons, I also watch/listen to the commentaries.  I like to know what goes into the making of the show, where the writer and director are coming from, and getting to know some of the actors' personalities when they aren't in character.  One thing that keeps popping up from Aaron Sorkin and Thomas Schlamme is that they received heavy criticism about the show's "politics".  They discuss it a bit, but cast it off.  I, however, want to challenge this--even if it is a few years past.

I just watched the episode "The Two Bartlets" from the third season.  The two primary issues in the episode are about friendship and affirmative action.  In fact, the only thing that was of particular interest in terms of "issue politics" was the debate over affirmative action that was had between C.J. and Toby (two democrats) who take very different positions.  In fact, Toby refrains from tearing down C.J.'s arguments (con), even though I, a viewer, could.  The show, in fact, proclaims two positions and refrains from saying either one is better.  I can't see what the problem is here.

They also have a secondary issue in which Josh is asked to take advantage of a friendship he has with someone to solve a national defense issue (long story).  Josh does make an impassioned plea on the part of his friend, the demonstrator, and bringing up his stance (which seemed pretty solid from where I sit).  Again, what is not at stake was a clear policy position taken by the people running the show, because Josh is still being forced to convince his friend to stop protesting.  This not only avoids a rendering on the issue, but says something instead about the workings and priorities of governments, which is often in action, not argument.

But the crux of the episode is not the issues in and of themselves, but a discussion about the people that are given the authority to deal with them.  In the case of the show, that is the White House staff and the elected officials that lead them.  In the climax of the episode, Toby takes his concern for the president not taking a stand on the affirmative action debate into the Oval Office.  He wants the president to take a stand.  He also raises the question of why he didn't take a stand: Pres. Bartlet doesn't want to be smart.

Viewers of The West Wing know that Pres. Bartlet is brilliant.  He has a PhD in Economics and is a broadly-read and classically-trained scholar.  He is smart.  Toby suggests that there are two Bartlets: the nutty and jovial professor and the impassioned and determined reformer.  What Toby is getting at is that the President tries to be the nutty professor because, of all things, he was smarter than his father, and it cost him love.  The implications of this are that he only expects to get love when he avoids looking smart.

What is both timely (2002) and timeless about this episode was that we were in the midst of 'frat-boy' politics.  We had a president in real life that many would have preferred to have a beer with than the other guy.  We didn't like people looking smart.  Just like my best friend in grade school that hid his report card because he didn't want people to know he got all A's.  Just like I am told that I occasionally preach over the heads of people.  I won't call it an anti-intellectual agenda, but something worse.  This is the politics.

In the show, the "plain-spoken" everyman Republican candidate wins the Iowa primary, setting him up to be the one true challenger to the president in season 4's election.  What this represented was Karl Rove (as a disciple of the Barry Goldwater school of politics) and his strategy to challenge an opponent's greatest strength, thereby weakening the whole candidate.  In this case (like what happened in 2000 and would get replayed in 2004), the candidate not only runs a campaign that suggests that an 'average joe' has worthy skills, but that it is preferable to intelligence.

This strategy only works if the intelligent one is reluctant to show his intelligence.  I'll overlook the fact that many Americans prefer smart people in the White House, to take this argument: what is Pres. Bartlet if you take intelligence out of the equation?  What happens to his identity?  What is even left?  The very notion that this president would shy away from an intellectual challenge demonstrates truly poor leadership on his part.

The reality of the show in general was that the politics were very fair, even when they didn't need to be.  The president himself demonstrated a hawkish foreign policy and a neo-liberal economic policy, both of which should clearly appeal to conservative and pro-corporate sympathies.  And the one area that he was most liberal were on social issues, which always took a back seat when the times got tough.  In fact, the Left-Wing was thoroughly abused in much of the show's run.  While fairly representing the Democratic Party of the 1990s and 2000s, it also seems to be a less problematic position for conservatives, I would assume, as it matches or complements their positions on issues than a platform more Rooseveltian or Johnsonian.  Instead, the real problem many conservatives had with the show was simply that it was told from a Democratic administration's perspective and the viewer was asked to root for Democrats.  The horror.

For me, I still look at the examples of leadership.  You stand up and shout whenever the President or staff take a stand.  The times you feel good about them are when they say what they believe.  There is a reason the first season's "Let Bartlet Be Bartlet" is one of the show's best episodes: it's about taking a stand.