‘The West Wing’ Seems Quaint in 2020
News has been circulating this past weekend that legendary drama series The West Wing will be making a return to our screens, with creator Aaron Sorkin picking up the pen. As it happens we had just finished rewatching the seven season long series and some parts of it seemed…quaint. This is a show, after all, that celebrated politicians with passion and integrity. Something that we could use a bit of right now.
TRYING TO AVOID THE PERCEPTION OF CORRUPTION…EVEN WHEN YOU’RE NOT CORRUPT
President Jed Bartlett released his tax returns and put his business assets into a trust when he took office. This is standard procedure for any president who wants to make it clear that he’s not putting personal interest above the office. The major exception to this unspoken rule is, of course, Trump who insists he can be trusted to maintain control of his businesses while simultaneously fighting to hide his finances from the public eye.
But the Bartlett administration takes things further, as they don’t want to do anything that could be misconstrued as dodgy. Take, for example, an episode where senior staffer Toby Ziegler enjoys a big success in the stock market. When they become concerned that this could be perceived as taking advantage of his position, Toby drops his salary for a year out of good faith. Not that it was his idea…
In later seasons there’s questions about the president’s daughter, Ellie, receiving special treatment in getting government research grants. Knowing that they did everything to avoid this conduct, the administration makes everything transparent to reassure the public.
BEING WILLING TO BE WRONG
Human beings make mistakes. Even those in the highest office of the land, with world class advisors, can make the wrong call. It takes a strong person to be able to admit their mistakes while in that role. Jed Bartlett embodies this facet of the job perfectly.
In an early episode, the series defining ‘A Proportional Response’, a plane carrying a personal friend to the president is blown out of the sky by a hostile state. Bartlett becomes furious and insists on taking a disproportional response and launching a massive counter-attack. Instead he is talked down by Chief of Staff Leo McGarry, admitting that he was driven by his emotions and needed to remember what’s more important to the USA.
Not long after that, when the Surgeon General speaks about the misconceptions of marijuana it’s expected that Bartlett with fire her. Instead his daughter Ellie speaks out against this action, and eventually convinces her father that he’s in the wrong. It’s a tough pill for the president to swallow, but he listens to the logic and admits his fault.
A STRONG STANCE AGAINST NEPOTISM
Although we’ve made a couple of references to Ellie’s involvement, it was very rare that she would have anything to do with her father’s work. In fact, they would go to lengths to ensure that being the president didn’t automatically open doors for his children.
There were strict orders for the the media to not approach the president’s daughters for comment on any issue outside of organised family events. Bartlett insists that his children have as close to a normal life as possible, with no special treatment for college admission or job offers. When his son-in-law sets his sights on public office, the president goes out of the way to avoid adding his endorsement to the ticket.
It’s the opposite of filling the Republic National Convention with your children talking up how great you are, giving them and their partners senior staff jobs with fat paychecks, and covering up their corrupt behaviour. Nothing like putting a greedy slumlord in charge of protecting the USA from an incoming pandemic.
When you’re sitting in the oval office you will have to make difficult decisions that involve people’s lives. This includes military actions and, as some states still carry the death penalty, the lives of citizens. Now I don’t know what kind of process Donald Trump uses when faced with difficult moral dilemmas, but I do know the kinds of people he surrounds himself with.
Jed Bartlett consults with trusted aides and people he looks up to and respects. When confronted with a decision to grant a pardon, and knowing he should allow the execution to be carried out, he meets with religious leaders to discuss the morality of his actions. We only hope that our real leaders give the same consideration to a person’s life.
STEPPING DOWN DURING A CONFLICT OF INTEREST
Working in the public eye and being held to a higher standard requires careful consideration or all issues. If you have a strong conflict of interest, all the more reason to be transparent. You’d want to avoid making deals with foreign governments, showing favouritism to disreputable friends and giving high ranking political jobs to your children and their partners.
Stepping down from the presidential role is an extreme measure. One has to wonder what would happen in an extreme situation, such as the president’s daughter being held to ransom. Bartlett stands down, and gives the office to a political rival because it’s the right thing to do.
SEXUAL MISCONDUCT ENDS POLITICAL CAREERS
In the world of The West Wing, sexual misconduct is enough to sink even the most powerful politician. When one of Bartlett’s ambassadors is found to be having an affair, he’s immediately stood down. The president’s son in law is found to be having an affair, and his political aspirations are shut down. Finally, there’s Vice-President John Hoynes, he is immediately fired after he’s found to be having an affair.
Donald Trump, meanwhile, has been accused by 25 different women of sexual misconduct, cheated on all three of his wives, paid off a pornstar in order to hide an affair, it has been alleged that he would invade young women’s changing rooms and has been caught on tape openly bragging about molesting women.
I loved this series so much. I watched it several times. Maybe watching it again now would give me a little hope?
I don’t know if it will give you hope, but you’d at least get some good TV.