Aaron Sorkin's West Wing is, in my mind, the best TV drama of all time. TV Guide rates it number 7, and I think that the question of whether it or Hill Street Blues or LA Law or whatever the other six are is best is largely a matter of preference. I like the content - especially of the first four seasons when Sorkin was still writing it. I used to wait for it and watch it every Wednesday night - it was my one hour of TV a week. OK, maybe I watched Seinfeld, too. Netflix has given me the opportunity to watch it again - this time with the reluctant wife who did not see it then and, thankfully, is enjoying it now as much as I am. We are bingeing on it - much as we did on Grace and Frankie. For me, it is partially a trip down memory lane, and that is an interesting and convoluted trip not just through my memory, but through the weird way in which history was presented and lived in watching the series when it was live.
The West Wing and Seinfeld were alike in that watching both - I suppose especially if that was my hour and a half of TV - kept me posted on the news. Sure, I read the newspaper, but to find out that high flow shower heads had been banned by the federal government, I had to see the goofy hairdos on Seinfeld, and to be educated about women's issues in the Middle East, I had to learn about a mythical country named Qumar on the West Wing. The West Wing lived in a weird Universe that was part the Clinton Presidency Redux (I must admit to feeling sorry for George W. that he had to compete with Jed Bartlet as President - Jed was a nobel winning scholar, articulate (he had Aaron Sorkin writing for him, remember) and he was passionate, informed and empathically attuned - and a good actor). No President in living memory could live up to him. But he had a flaw. A central and powerful one - an intractable one - he lied during his campaign. He didn't tell the American People that he had relapsing-remitting Multiple Sclerosis. This flaw was a touchstone with the past - with the Clinton Presidency. Which lie was it? Lies about Whitewater? I think it was the lies about Monica Lewinski. And this amalgam of an au courant President fighting through the peccadilloes of his predecessor and model created an idealized executive - an executive that, I think, allowed Clinton's former staffers to realize the dreams that they had - the dreams that they were characterized as having in Primary Colors - the dreams of the true believers.
The series was, apparently, originally conceived as focusing on the staffers of the White House - so much so that the original intent was not to cast a President - I'm guessing the staffers would disappear into the Oval Office and then come out and talk about it. This may have been the first symptom of the anger. Bill Clinton's Presidency could have been a great one if only he hadn't been in the Oval Office! This understandable wish to erase the president who embarrassed the nation and caused incredible debt on the part of staffers who had to hire lawyers to protect them against sharks who wanted to expose the President's lies did not lead to an idealized version of the staff. They are smart, hardworking, but also smug and almost drunk with the amount of power that they clearly enjoy wielding both to achieve good outcomes for the country, but also to embarrass and harm those who would oppose them. This arrogance frequently proves to be their undoing, and they have to learn to temper it, to play within themselves. They also have to learn that the Republican side of the aisle contains people of principle and they have to engage with them in good faith. We now have the makings of a true fantasy - political adversaries in a two party system working for the good of the country!
We took a break from our bingeing to visit Kent State University - site of the May 4, 1970 shootings where US National Guards shot unarmed protesting students who were running from them: they injured 11 and killed 4. The site of the gathering and the site of the shootings are marked by educational signs that include photographs of the gathering spot and of the parking lot where most of the students were shot. They tell the story of Richard Nixon, who had run for President on a platform of bringing a close to the Vietnam war, telling the American People on Thursday April 30 that the US had invaded Cambodia, expanding the scope of the war. The next day, May 1, protesters gathered at the Victory Bell, in front of a natural amphitheater on campus and buried a copy of the constitution in response; enacting what they believed Nixon had done. The ROTC building on campus also "caught fire" - presumably it was burned by the protesters. The following Monday, May 4, there was a gathering to continue the protest. Store owners had asked the Governor, Jim Rhodes, to send in the National Guard because they were concerned that the students were out of hand. Rhodes, characterizing the protesters as worse than Nazis, promised to "eradicate the problem." He ordered that the M-1 Rifles of the soldiers should be loaded with live ammunition to be used in addition to the tear gas they routinely used (those rifles apparently were always carried but without ammunition - I think the bayonets on them were enough to allow the guard to effectively disperse the crowd).
The memorial is moving and very well designed. The focus of most of the plaques and of the area of reflection overlook the natural bowl and the victory bell - and what is now and was then a practice football field. The students were driven from this area - into a parking lot behind the building that dominates it and shot there. While there are plaques and memorials there - the focus is on where the students stood - not on where they fell.
As a Gen Xer, the events of the 1960s, including the shootings of 1970, which occurred when I was ten, dominated my teenage years. It was a little like watching the Bartlet Presidency while Bush was in office - locally it was "cool" to be a hippie - grow your hair long and rebel against authority - while nationally - even though Crosby, Stills and Nash were still singing about Ohio, the tide was turning. Nixon resigned in disgrace, and then we were confronting the energy crisis of the Carter years - little did we know we were on the verge of a second major post war economic expansion that would make the ragged clothes of the hippies who preached living on love look quaint and old fashioned - get over it man and get a Mercedes! Reagan and his white horse are coming to town!
My grandmother was captivated by the Watergate hearings - even more than I am by the West Wing. She watched them daily - from beginning to end - they were broadcast live on network TV - this was before CNN. She had only been able to vote for Nixon twice - the Daly Machine in Chicago prevented her - as a lifelong Republican - from voting in 1960, when Cook County carried Illinois which, in turn, carried Kennedy to the presidency. I think she was always convinced that if she could have voted in that election, the world would have been a different and probably better place. This was because she was convinced of the integrity of Nixon. He, and indeed politicians in general, were venerated as men - they were largely men - of principle and she (and we) trusted them to be doing what was right (except for that Daly guy - whom we all knew to be corrupt). It was crushing to her that these supposedly virtuous men were exposed as deeply flawed people - who could not be trusted to follow the rules - nor to tell the truth when it was apparent to everyone what had occurred. I think the Watergate hearings must have predated but foreshadowed her discovery that men in her own family could not be trusted in the ways that she had always thought they could. In any case, she spent much of the 1970s in a profound funk - that, if I were able to retrospectively diagnose family members, I might call a depression.
The West Wing, then, might be seen as an antidepressant - a way of resurrecting faith in government - by creating men and women of principle who work on our behalf - not without human failings, but with conviction about the importance of their cause to create a world that is a better one. A world in which people keep their word. A world where, when they promise to end a war, they do it. When they say they will protect the people, they work to do that. A world in which people, when they make a mistake, cop to it. On the episode we watched tonight, Jeb Bartlet, in January of season three, agrees to accept the censure of the House and Senate. He heads off a fight that he brought on, one that he might have won because the House would have been exposed as being as unreliable as they are trying to paint him, but the fight would have been ugly and his Chief of Staff and many other staffers would have been impugned. He chose not to engage in that dog fight not to save his Chief of Staff, but because it was the right thing to do. He was wrong, and the congress should censure him, and he should accept that. And we should move on with the business of governing - of doing good for the people - not spending time trying to come up with the definition of what "is" is. And we should let them decide whether they would re-elect him, warts and all, or whether they would find his sins unforgivable. This is how it ought to be done.
And this is an idealized version of our own executive functioning. The West Wing can become, for a moment, the way that we should be functioning as individuals. Relying on our manifold subroutines - aids in the West Wing; unconscious processes in our own minds that determine even our most defining acts not as a result purely of rational - nor of irrational activity - but as the result of compromise - of determining what is possible and what is desirable and what is acceptable and what won't compromise us - and trusting that our executive - and at this moment it is worth noting that Jeb Bartlet and Captain Kirk (see a review of Star Trek here) share more commonalities than my earlier encomium would suggest - our executive is, in fact, a complex entity that can be self protective - if we are Bill Clinton (or a host of others), without regard for the consequences to those we care about. Because our executives are hot headed or anxious or self conscious or bold and therefore somewhat blind or cautious or recalcitrant - and this kaleidoscope of styles - one or more of which may be our most comfortable functional space - characterize not just the presidents of the last hundred or so years, but our own functioning, in different settings and at different moments in our lives.
Wasn't Jim Rhodes once a scared little kid? Didn't he have an executive function that led him to make sure that he was never bullied again? Did he construct himself in such a way that he would show the bullies - even if they came in the form of kids at a regional campus in a tiny corner of the state? Did he not, then, unleash the power of the State to eradicate the problem? Wasn't this eradication murder? Didn't he become the thing he most reviled - the thing he accused his enemies - his own citizens - the children of his citizens - of being - a Nazi?
And though accepting Censure helps the West Wing crew, and the imaginary, parallel nation get past the deceit of a President who lies about his health but is otherwise virtuous, don't we still feel disappointed (in the next episode and in real life) that we haven't shot for the moon - the way that man who wasn't really elected - Kennedy - did? Don't we want to be not just not a liar, not a thief, not a Nazi, but someone great? Don't we secretly harbor disappointment that this leader - of our country, or our state, of our town, or our work, of our place of worship, of our own ship of state - hasn't accomplished all that he or she might? Don't we wish to do more than simply not do evil?
I think the strivings of our executive, integrative function - of our narcissism - of our positive selves - perhaps pushed in part by the sublimation of our darker selves - are what fuel us to achieve what we do. And yet we are also flawed - in big and minor ways - and our accomplishments - no matter the size of the stage - leave something to be desired. We cry out - whether by burying the constitution or in the middle of the night from the middle of our dreams - against injustice. We work to remind ourselves that we have not done all that we should or that have done what we should not. Within ourselves we call that guilt - within the body politic we call that protest.
The memorial at Kent State is ultimately a memorial to the importance of free speech. And free speech is at the cornerstone of the analytic endeavor. We need to hear those voices that we would squelch - they carry valuable information. Do we need to be ruled by them? Ultimately the politicians have to answer - in a country that is free and has free speech and freedom of the press - to the people. But not just to a vocal minority. Just because I protest doesn't mean that I am right - nor that I am the voice of the majority. Just because I feel guilty doesn't mean that I am not engaged in the best possible course of action. There will be costs to living. There will be costs to governing. Plato urged the governors, in the Republic, to have a well-ordered soul. Indeed, he used, as I have done, the state as a metaphor for that soul - and proposed that they should be reflective of each other - each being led by a philosopher king. I believe that we need to organize ourselves to be as well prepared as we can be to meet the challenges that we will encounter with our best possible selves. And to recognize that even these selves will be flawed.
Jed Bartlet's story is much less sordid than Bill Clinton's. He entered the race to make a few points - to be part of the national dialogue. The true philosopher king, he was convinced to run by his friend and future Chief of Staff. He didn't believe that he had a chance to win, so didn't think that he needed to disclose his illness. But the future Chief of Staff assembled a campaign staff - who would later staff the White House - who were competent, knowledgeable and savvy and they ran a campaign that introduced Bartlet to the Country. The country was as impressed with him as the group of staffers had been - despite the fact that Jed did not respond well personally to the staffers - likely, in part, as a reflection of his ambivalence about running.
Once the country embraced him, Jed was faced with a decision - the decision of the character played by Larry Hagman in Primary Colors - "Do I - having made the gesture and now being the frontrunner - acknowledge that I also have a secret?" In Bartlet's case - that I am sick and may not be able at all moments to perform the duties of the President. This could lose the Presidency for me. I didn't know how strongly I wanted it, but now I do. I have a chance to do the good that I have dreamed of (and to become President - let's not leave that out - something that I have always wanted to do for very selfish reasons), but I might lose that opportunity if I risk letting others know of my condition.
I linger here, as I bring this overly long post to a close, because I think it is at the heart of the dilemma about executive functioning. No big decision is ever simple. No big decision is ever pure. We are complex critters and our actions, when they occur, especially when they are important actions - choosing to run for President and choosing to keep the secret - arming the national guard - are the result of complex psychological processes that we can have, at best, fragmentary information about as we engage in them. Psychoanalysis has been accused of being a science that can only predict in retrospect - but that may be the only way that we can know important elements of ourselves - and only then if we have the courage to acknowledge the complexity of our character and the baser elements that inform our actions.
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