Where Have You Gone, Jed Bartlet?
Sarah and I have recently taken to binge watching The West Wing. She’d never seen the entire series; I had, but after this presidential election, I wanted to watch it again. That doesn’t really capture it. I felt compelled to watch it again. Even during the presidential debates, I started getting the feeling that in some way reality was slipping away from me and my country. Here was the heir apparent, the presumptive winner of the whole shebang, Hillary Clinton. She looked like a president; she talked like a president; she had all the experience and credentials one (well, a democrat one) would expect and hope for in a president. She appeared in debates with Nondescript White Guy and Bernie Sanders, a socialist senator from Vermont. A socialist senator from Vermont??? But, Bernie kept her–and us–honest. I never for one minute thought he was electable, but we need politicians like Bernie Sanders to influence the Democrat platform toward equity and access.
On the Republican side there were more candidates than a stage could hold. The thing is, I’m a firm democrat, but there were a few Republicans that I could have resigned myself into voting for if, say, it was uncovered that Hillary had broken the law or was indicted before the election. As I’m writing this, I find it incredible that I just talked about a voting option pending my candidate being indicted for a felony. The signs, you see, were always already there. Anyway, one by one TV celebrity and real estate tycoon Donald Trump picked off credible Republican candidates. He bullied, he lied, he badgered, he mocked, he was dismissive, until at last, there was only him. He was the Celebrity Apprentice host!!!
Election night at our house looked a lot like the SNL skit the following week. Here’s the link: https://youtu.be/SHG0ezLiVGc. We had barely gotten our election night snacks out before the tide started to turn. The story that night, for me, was less that our highly qualified candidate lost, or even that the unfit, unqualified, unprepared, and undesirous candidate won. The story was the shock and despair of the commentators and pundits. When James Carville and Rachel Maddow tell us we’re in trouble, we’re in trouble. Like the (white) people in the skit, our night devolved as it went on.
Then came the 75 days of blissful collective denial. Never have I heard so little talk–so little acknowledgement–of the transition of presidential power. We were a country living a Diana Ross song: just walk away in the cold morning light but let us have the warmth of this long, last night.
And then the inauguration happened. So we turned to our president for solace and wisdom–our president of choice, that is. As we watch our nightly West Wing episodes, astonishingly, the “current” events of the show are again and again eerily similar to current events in our new un-reality. I understand that WW characters are blessed with good scripts–smart, educated, professional, savvy, clever, introspective, commanding–and the genius of Aaron Sorkin. It’s when I turn it to MSNBC that the badly scripted please-don’t-let-this-be-real-reality show begins. It’s not that a television series presents a more desired reality, it presents a more realistic reality.
Yesterday, I found a Buzzfeed post from one year ago this week, 28 Jed Bartlet Moments We All Need To Be Reminded of Right Now (www.buzzfeed.com/robinedds/let-bartlet-be-bartle). Now that I think about it, it’s not that I need to be reminded of Jed Bartlett moments, it’s that I just so badly want to be. And, I’m not the only one. I’ve mentioned my realistic reality hypothesis to several friends, and they often reply that they too are re-watching the series seeking their own Jed Bartlet moments. These moments model statesmanship and diplomacy, negotiation and compromise. They show a flawed president, his seat-of-the-pants staff, a nettlesome press, and an entrenched, polarized congress–making government work. Making democracy work. I think here’s the part that makes the realities so stark for me: when called upon to make certain very hard decisions, Bartlet grapples with his integrity, his ethical compass. He makes the decision but he does so loathsomely. Our current president shows no sign of grappling–in fact, no sign of an ethical compass. There is no sign, even, of an acknowledgement that any decision was difficult. We do not know how this president comes to a decision, and how one comes to a decision is sometimes as significant as the decision itself.
Where Bartlet feels such a profound sense of accountability to Americans that it visibly weighs on him, there is no evidence of such a sense on our current president. So I will end this post with the obvious: if he doesn’t have one, we’ll provide it for him. We must not normalize this unrealistic character who has crafted the most elaborate reality show in U.S. history, and we must hold him accountable–by insisting that the press call him on every word, every move. In one marvelous scene (of many), Jed’s Chief of Staff reminds senior staff of a core maxim by writing on a yellow pad, Let Bartlet Be Bartlet. Leo knew that Bartlet’s character was an intangible asset to be factored into the hard work of governing. So I say Let Trump Be Trump, for his character, too, will manifest so that its effect upon government can no longer be ignored.
Below is a YouTube link to the Feckless Thug scene of Two Cathedrals. Enjoy.