Early in the series there was an episode which dealt with having a President who had never served in the armed forces acting as commander-in-chief and giving orders to the Joint Chiefs of Staff. It was easy to understand the misgivings on both sides, and the lack of trust. Then, as the series moved on through the years, the relationships and the trust developed, one of many storylines that carried through season after season.
One of the best aspects of the series was that it used real time. It followed each year of the Presidency beginning with part way through the first year. After 9/11 there was a special episode that addressed terrorism via a lockdown at the White House with a group of school kids. Every major character came through and interacted with them, and though it didn’t move the ongoing story arcs along, it fit in seamlessly with the rest of the series.
Maybe the most important thing I learned came during the second season, when a young, blonde, Republican lawyer named Ainsley Hayes was hired as White House counsel. Her intention was to turn down the position, but during the course of the episode she witnessed the President and his staff dealing with an international crisis. As she said to her friends, they may hold positions with which she strongly disagrees, but they are committed, serious patriots.
Throughout the series, people from both sides of the aisle were honorable and dishonorable. Like human beings everywhere, West Wing showed the best and the worst of us. It was impossible not to feel paranoid in the episode in which Charlie and Debbie are exposed to plague virus, the West Wing is in lockdown, and the Secret Service and the President assure them it was just a drill. The President and Ron, the head of the Secret Service, agree that they don’t need to know.
At the same time, it was equally impossible not to feel moved in the episode in which everything is going wrong for the White House staffers, because they are constantly trying to play it safe. At the end, when Leo and the President decide to take risks and tackle the tough issues, Leo asks the senior staff how they feel about it. One by one they respond with “I serve at the pleasure of the President.” It sent chills down my back. (See YouTube clip)
West Wing was never afraid to show mistakes on both sides of the aisle, too, and that added to its credibility. It also made me realize that no matter what my beliefs around party, in the end, what matters most is the integrity and the intention of those who serve. Political life in Washington, particularly in the White House, means putting your personal life second. How many times were senior staff still working at the White House till late at night, then back again early the next morning? Granted, this was a television series, but it is clear that the writers did their homework.
During that campaign, I sat down and watched coverage of the primaries. I watched each candidate, Republican or Democrat, because I’d learned from West Wing not to limit my views according to party. One weekend I was able to watch the 7 or 8 major candidates speaking at various rallies. Most of what I heard was simple political rhetoric, which was unimpressive to me. No substance. Two people had something to say that had substance – Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.
I have to admit that I didn’t like what Mitt Romney stood for, but I thought he made some good points when he spoke. What I realized, watching him over the next few weeks, was that I liked his ability to think, and to be able to articulate what he was thinking. His positions weren’t mine, but I respected his intelligence. Barack Obama had both the ability to think, and beliefs I could support. I did have some doubts about his lack of experience, but he was campaigning with humor, intelligence, and compassion.
The decider for me was how Obama handled the Rev. Wright situation. I listened to his speech on race in Philadelphia, and was moved to tears. He never tried to distance himself from his pastor, and at the same time, refused to support what he had said. He said even his white grandmother said things that made him cringe, and don’t we all have people in our lives like that? He would not say he didn’t love them, even if he didn’t agree with them. And he was able to see more, see a wider field of understanding and humanity. By the end of that speech, I knew I would vote for him for President.
Knowing that, I still watched both conventions, Democratic and Republican. It felt important to see and understand both parties. West Wing helped me to see how essential it is to not close any doors, but to stay open to people as people. As I watched the Republican convention, I realized that we were being offered a choice. McCain was appealing to our fears. He was letting us know he would protect us. As a war hero, and a returned prisoner of war, that was a powerful message. Obama was appealing to our faith. Not our religious faith, but our faith in ourselves as human beings who could work with him to stand up and heal our country.
Protection doesn’t come from outside. It comes from inside. It comes from an open heart, not from a closed mind. West Wing taught me that the deepest foundations of our country were built on the belief in humanity.
To this day, I try to watch both conventions in their entirety, so that I can have a real understanding of what is going on in each party, and with each candidate. I set myself a deadline to have my first draft for my work-in-progress done by July 18th, so that I can watch the two weeks of convention coverage that start that night.
To this day, I am moved to tears by President Obama’s speech on race in Philadelphia during the campaign of 2008. He was able to address a difficult personal issue with grace, compassion, and love. More than that, he was able to look beyond himself and see the bigger picture, and address that as well.
To this day, The West Wing continues to teach me every time I watch, as a writer, and as a human being. I hope that one day my own writing can have a fraction of that effect on others.
P.S. It's almost 8:30 pm the night before this gets posted, and I've just finished watching the last episode of season three, Posse Comitatus, as I work my way through the series for the umpteenth time. I won't spoil it for anyone who hasn't seen it already, but the last 10 minutes of that episode are quite possibly the best 10 minutes ever offered on a television drama series. Without giving anything away, the orchestration of actors, script and storyline, visuals, and music is both astonishing and devastating on many different levels.
What books, films, TV shows, have had a profound effect on you - politically or otherwise?
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