"The West Wing" closes a dream

T.A. Barnhart

We now return you to our regular programming.  Sorry.

Politics is about two things: Power and dreams.  The two may seem interchangeable; to achieve goals in politics requires various kinds of power.  Power is gained and used to make those things happen that matter greatly to people.  But they are neither interchangeable nor inextricably connected.  They represent two very different kinds of humanity.  Power politics – real politik, LBJ and Kissinger and Rove – is a politics that becomes, in the very practice, divorced from meaning or belief beyond itself.  It's what Machiavelli taught, its essence summed up famously in Vietnam: "We had to destroy the village to save the village."  Bush's abuse of liberty to save liberty is our current version, and it's a terminal disease.

"The West Wing," a mere tv show, represented politics based in dreams.  Yes, it was written by Hollywood liberal Aaron Sorkin and featured a classic liberal president working towards a classic liberal agenda.  But throughout the series' run, no matter the issue or the players – and this includes the stronger Republican voices like Sen Arnie Vinick (Alan Alda) and White House Aide Ainsley Hayes (Emily Proctor) – the reason for political activity and involvement was dreams.  The people believed in something special, something good, and whatever flaws they saw in the public sector, they believed government to be an effective instrument of reaching for those dreams.

The show also had brilliant dialog.  Even in the seasons where the plot lines dragged – the awful sequence with Zoey Bartlett kidnapped and the Speaker of the House (John freaking Goodman) taking over as president – the rat-a-tat dialog remained fresh and funny.  (Well, my brother never thought so, but then again, he loves "24" which I hate; and just because he's the tv writer for the Kansas City Star should not sway anyone as to which of us might be more correcter than the other.)  The plots were rarely important to the show anyway.  Two things mattered on "The West Wing": process and involvement.

Politics is messy and frequently ugly.  Most people stay away for that reason.  Hell, I write rather than finish my graduate degree in Public Affairs because I have very little desire to be part of the nitty-gritty.  I would also be very bad at it; my skin is too thin and my opinions too dear.  But I loved watching people who are good at it – Josh, Toby, Sam, CJ, Leo – dig into the mechanics and the personalities and try to be clever and try to stay true to what they believe is right.  They lost a lot, they won a lot.  That's politics.  You get involved and you work things through.  You stick to your guns as best you can, and then you decide when to fish and when to cut bait.  I loved watching the process fictionalized in this series; some of it was realistic and some of it great entertainment.  But the idea of what politics is about – getting involved and working your ass off for what you believe – well, for one hour a week, it made great tv.

What I'll miss the most, along with the dialog, are the characters.  Charlie Young (Dule Hill) was wonderful, the son of a slain DC cop, herself a single mom.  He became the son the president never had.  CJ and all the merry press corps; Carol and crazy Margaret (NiCole Robinson); getting to enjoy Lily Tomlin doing any damn thing is always a treat.  Marilee Matlin, Kathleen Bird York (who wrote the music for "Crash"), and the amazing Mary-Louise Parker.  There were so many, and they were written so well.  So many wonderful characters, small in terms of tv but huge in their aspect on life.  The Federal government is huge, and most of the people who make up that hugeness are clerks and secretaries and assistants to assistants and people who will never sway a single piece of legislation but without whose efforts the whole thing would grind to a halt.  I've been one of those people, and it was great to see the president say goodbye to some of them at the end.

Most of all, of course, "The West Wing" was about the president: Josiah Bartlett (Martin Sheen).  As they packed up his office – the Oval Office – at the end (in a typical WW touch, as the new president was sworn in the background), we saw what made this president so different from the people we must endure in the real world:  On his bookshelf, a copy of a book by Michel Foucault.  Imagine such a world, where the president is a serious scholar, an effective politician, and he reads Foucault.  This is the beauty of the dream world of "The West Wing." 

I have seasons 2 and 3 on dvd, thanks to that brother with the journalist gig; I'll have the others at some point, no doubt.  My involvement in politics has nothing to do with power.  I'll never acquire much of it, and I wouldn't know how to use it.  I hope to acquire influence, but if I do, it will be because of my words and that people know me and trust me.  I am involved in politics because I love my sons, I am outraged at the daily and needless slaughter of children in this country and around the world, and I am horrified that we are on the brink of pissing this world away forever.  Yes, I would love the power to fix everything as I see best, but that ain't gonna happen.  So I have to do what I can, and that's dream a big dream and work to get it done.  The "West Wing" was my weekly fix of inspiration.  For an hour each week, I saw what is possible with a dream and a lot of hard work.

When television was being invented and the concept of the television show was being developed, people honestly thought it would lead to a better educated, more cultured populace.  TV could promote a civilized society.  This rarely happens, and if we are inspired by tv, too often it's to get rich quick or pick up the phone for this week's "American Idol."  But inspiration can be more than something selfish or superficial; it can be to dream of and work for a better society.  We can become better people watching tv.  That's the best part of "The West Wing":  it does inspire us to better things.  It inspires me to keep going, to keep dreaming and working.  And come January 2009, I intend to be full of happiness when the Bush horrorshow is cancelled and replaced by a progressive Democrat.  Someone of whom I can be proud.  Someone who deserves that office in "The West Wing."

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    /set threadjack on

    I like West Wing and 24 both.

    /set threadjack off

  • Bryan Zhang (unverified)

    "What are you thinking about?" Abbie Bartlet asked her husband as they flew back home to New Hampshire after the marvelous adventure they had shared with "West Wing" fans.

    "Tomorrow," he replied.

    Great article Sir,it makes me feel much better this morning, more optimistic than yesterday, and ready to be that change.

    Only thing though, last night's West Wing did not close a dream, it is merely an invitation to us, to keep dreaming as tomorrow will always be a better day. And if millions of us around the world dare to dream together, work together and stand up together, then on one of those tomorrows, idealism will prevail and our dream will be finally realised.

    “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.”

    Have a great today Sir,

    Warmest regards and best wishes from UK

  • LT (unverified)

    Only thing though, last night's West Wing did not close a dream, it is merely an invitation to us, to keep dreaming as tomorrow will always be a better day. And if millions of us around the world dare to dream together, work together and stand up together, then on one of those tomorrows, idealism will prevail and our dream will be finally realised. “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.”

    At the party the night of the 2nd Bartlett inaugural, in a back room at one of the balls, there was a ceremony where Will Bailey became part of the White House staff, certificate and all. That quote was part of the conversation between Bartlett and Bailey as he was sworn in.

  • Barbara Galbraith (unverified)

    I love the West Wing, and wrote (not nearly as eloquently as this I might add) on my own blog lastnight. I love the ideals, the characters, the dialogue and the dreams. Most of all, I love that I truly do believe this show made me a better person, and a better citizen. Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us.

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    OK, I guess, as long as Margaret Mead is in there somewhere.

  • cheeeseburger (unverified)

    Ahhhh, The District of Columbia!

    If you consider that there have been an average of 160,000 troops in Iraq-Afghan theater during the last 22 months, that gives a firearm death rate of 60 per 100,000. Keeping in mind the rate in Washington D.C. is 80.6 per 100,000, that means that you are 25% more likely to be shot and killed in our Nation's Capitol, which has some of the strictest gun control laws in the world, than you are in Iraq.

    Conclusion: We should immediately pull out of Washington, D.C.

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    What I want to know is what the writers know: apparently Will Bailey is going to run in Oregon's 4th Congressional District. Either they think Peter DeFazio is a conservative, or they meant that Bailey would run in the second district. But don't tell Chuck Butcher!

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    yea, if they wanted Will to run for office, why not send him home to California and run against slimerat Pombo?

    i came across a reference to this episode that indicated NBC wanted to a retrospective but the cast wanted too much money. i'm glad; this is a much better episode than some sniffly self-congratulations. that's available on the dvd.

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    I really enjoyed West Wing, but it hasn't always been careful about geography. Barlet once pronounced Willamette as Willum-ette, and last night, Haverhill, Mass. (normally pronounced HAYvrill), was pronounced Hahv er hill. This is not a small town -- it's a city the size of Medford.

    Also, did anyone notice that while they were talking about -10 degree weather, the Santos' were riding past trees with bright-green leaves?

  • Eric Berg (unverified)

    I heart 'West Wing', too. But let's not forget it's a) a t.v. show, and b) fiction.

    Did anyone else notice that President Bartlet last night poetically, yet incorrectly, named a few of the Founding Fathers when the first lady said something like, "Whose idea was it to hold an outside ceremony in January when it's 10 degrees?"

    If you don't know what the heck I'm talking about, please read the 20th Ammendment to the US Constitution. With my wife as my witness I was reading this from the 'World Almanac and Book of Facts' by the end of the first commercial break:

    "John Adams. March 4, 1797. Thomas Jefferson. March 4, 1801...Second inauguration of FDR. Jan. 20, 1937..."

  • LT (unverified)

    Yep, that was another detail they got wrong. I think it was FDR who got it changed, and if I am not mistaken it had something to do with the Depression and how long the transition had been between Hoover and FDR in 1932.

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    What I loved best about the West Wing was that it almost always had the trivia right. Though the final show was great thematically and dramatically, it was one of the worst from a getting-the-trivia-wrong standpoint.

    I was hollering about the March inauguration one, too.

    Another trivia hit -- the chief justice never says "so help me god" at the end of the oath. Why? Because it's not part of the oath. George Washington said it spontaneously, and every president since has done the same.

    I don't mind the OR-4 stuff and other dramatic license. (Um, yeah, the chief justice was a woman.) But getting the facts right is critical. That's why I don't watch Commander-in-Chief - I spend the entire show noticing basic Poli Sci 101 errors. (Like talking about a House vote to confirm a cabinet secretary, ugh.)

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