Sunday, October 22, 2006

‘The West Wing’ - Lessons for a difficult time

I rarely watch television, but have recently become an active subscriber to Netflix. Recently, I decided that watching the entire ‘West Wing’ series might be good entertainment for an inside the Beltway resident, and, possibly, a learning experience too.

So far, the series has more than met my expectations. I strongly recommend it. Moreover, it is great to watch a TV series without commercials, which seem to become more intrusive, each year. Commercials are the principal reason I am an infrequent TV viewer.

Two themes stand out in my mind. First is the pace of life in The West Wing; the degree to which it becomes an all-consuming activity making any sort of personal life almost impossible. “This is the most important thing in my life, for these few years,” Chief of Staff Leo McGarry tells his wife as she is about to leave him. Of course that is true for many positions that are not only jobs but ‘callings.’ In fact, I view my own position in that way and, for a variety of reasons, what might be called a ‘personal life’ takes second place, more often than not.

A second theme is basic humanity. Despite political pressures and a hectic pace, the show’s characters exhibit human qualities and grapple with the conflicts between those qualities and the imperatives of politics. Sometimes, too, they make politically inexpedient decisions and bear the consequences. One commentator described the show as an antidote to widely held cynicism about public service at the highest levels in Washington, D.C.

But cynicism seems pervasive in Washington, as mid-term elections approach. The emphasis on ‘mobilizing the base’ and creating ‘wedge issues’ fuels this. When I discussed the West Wing series with one friend, she gave me her theory of why the show had been taken off the air: it was because the Bush Administration put pressure on senior managers in NBC’s parent company who were political allies. Bush political advisors simply could not stand to have Americans watch a popular series that portrayed members of a somewhat liberal administration carrying out their duties with a degree of principle and humanity. (There is no hard evidence that this was the reason for the show’s conclusion. Commentaries I read, by both fans and critics, suggested it had simply run its course.)

But the show is still widely available via Netflix and other sources. I doubt that members of President Bush’s Administration, especially the Administration’s Rasputin, Karl Rove, will be viewers. But, as they grapple with some of the lowest approval ratings ever, a failed foreign policy, pervasive corruption and the prospect of a landslide vote of no confidence, an occasional viewing might serve them well.


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