|May 9, 2006|
"West Wing," We Hardly Knew Ye
A BUZZFLASH GUEST CONTRIBUTION
As kids, we clambered up and down the grassy hills surrounding my upstate New York hometown, playing army or acting out scenarios from favorite TV shows. One was a syndicated series called "Rescue 8," about tough guys from the Los Angeles County Fire Department who hurled themselves into danger saving lost hikers, adrift boaters and trapped miners. We saved a chipmunk from a cat.
Later, there was a period of espionage fantasies -- favorite scenes from "The Man from UNCLE" recreated by skulking under the gym bleachers or down the darkened halls of the junior high school.
We were geeks, but we comforted ourselves that we weren't as wonky as "Star Trek" geeks, obsessed with their pointy ears and Klingon phrasebooks.
Yet, in my doddering adulthood, I find myself hopelessly addicted to a TV show, as blindly smitten as any Trekkie yearning to boldly go where no man has gone before.
Like "Star Trek," mine, too, is a fantasy. I refer, of course, to "The West Wing."
"West Wing" is "Star Trek" for policy wonks, "Bizarro World" compared to our present Washington reality. Alas, it ends its seven-season run on NBC this Sunday night.
Imagine, if you will, a land in which the President of the United States is a Nobel Laureate in economics, and someone who, for all his vast ego, is able to confess his fallibility and accept the consequences. "No one in government takes responsibility for anything any more," President Jed Bartlett (Martin Sheen) complained in one episode. "We obfuscate, we rationalize. 'Everybody does it,' that's what we say. So we come to occupy a moral safe house where everyone's to blame, so no one's guilty... Well, I'm to blame. I was wrong."
Imagine a land in which the president's press secretary is not an automaton spouting the party line and even a Republican presidential candidate says things like, "The Founding Fathers didn't set up a government based on trust. They could have designed a government based on trust in our ability to govern fairly but they knew that power corrupts so they invented checks and balances. That was genius."
It's a world in which there are serious attempts to solve problems like Social Security and the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. Presidential aides and assistants are at the White House to accomplish something positive for their country (not that everyone doesn't have career advancement on their minds, too).
Can you fathom these words being spoken in the today's real life West Wing? "It is in the spirit of Andrew Jackson that I, from time to time, ask senior staff to have face-to-face meetings with those people representing organizations who have a difficult time getting our attention. I know the more jaded among you see this as something rather beneath you. But I assure you that listening to the voices of passionate Americans is beneath no one, and surely not the people's servants."
They were spoken by Leo McGarry, President Bartlett's chief of staff, played by the actor John Spencer. His sudden death by heart attack just a few weeks ago brought real-life finality to the television series' demise.
Of all "The West Wing's" vast roster of characters, Leo was my favorite. As one commentator noted, the principled and acerbic McGarry "represented what so many of us yearn for in a progressive politician. He was hard-nosed enough to be effective and yet never lost sight of the progressive vision."
The fictional McGarry was the kingmaker who made Bartlett president and built his team of supporting players, the best friend who could keep the president in line with a sardonic, laconic aside. "Sweden has a 100% literacy rate," Bartlett once exclaimed. "100%! How do they do that?"
Leo replied, "Maybe they don't and they can't add."
McGarry was a Vietnam veteran, a former Secretary of Labor and a recovering alcoholic. That was the thing I most admired about the way McGarry's character was written and portrayed -- its sensitivity to the reality of addiction and recovery. As Leo described it, "I'm an alcoholic, I don't have one drink. I don't understand people who have one drink. I don't understand people who leave half a glass of wine on the table. I don't understand people who say they've had enough. How can you have enough of feeling like this?"
He struggled with the disease and, a day at a time, won. In the process he learned the lesson of mutual support -- sharing experience, strength and hope to solve a problem. In one episode, he told a story familiar to many in recovery: "This guy's walking down the street when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep he can't get out. A doctor passes by and the guy shouts up: 'Hey, you! Can you help me out?' The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole and moves on."
"Then a priest comes along and the guy shouts up: 'Father, I'm down in this hole. Can you help me out?' The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole and moves on.
"Then a friend walks by: 'Hey, Joe, it's me. Can you help me out?' And the friend jumps in the hole. Our guy says, 'Are you stupid? Now we're both down here.' The friend says: 'Yeah, but I've been down here before and I know the way out.'"
Created by the writer and producer Aaron Sorkin, "The West Wing" was an idealized vision of what society, the American presidency and the democracy it serves should be.
After the first few seasons, such a burden burned Sorkin out. Others assumed the mantle. It has been said that in the days of JFK and the romance of the New Frontier, Harvard kids wanted to work in government; today, they want to write for "The Simpsons" and "Saturday Night Live." In an ironic parallel, after creating a fictional, more perfect union, Sorkin's latest project is described as "a behind-the-scenes look at a fictional sketch-comedy TV show."
As another writer and political observer said a couple of centuries ago, "I hasten to laugh at everything, for fear of being obliged to weep." So, given our current pickle, Sorkin may have the right idea. "The West Wing" is dead. Long live "The West Wing." The pity is, it never really existed.
A BUZZFLASH GUEST CONTRIBUTION
Copyright 2006 Messenger Post Newspapers
Michael Winship, Writers Guild of America Award winner and former writer with Bill Moyers, writes a weekly column for the Messenger Post Newspapers in upstate New York.
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