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A world without bad guys

November 20, 2009 - 9:00am -- Nick Young

I come a decade late to the American political drama-soap, The West Wing, and regret taking so long to catch a show that is as captivating as Star Trek, which had me glued to the TV set 40 years ago.

The star ship Enterprise spent the Cold War zipping about the universe fighting evil, but it was not that which made it compelling so much as the informal camaraderie of its egalitarian and inclusive crew—a Russian, a Japanese, a Scotsman, a black woman with long legs, and a cute alien with pointy ears—all, of course, under American captaincy. It offered a brilliant, if distinctly narcissistic, vision of what American world leadership would be like. The BBC’s best home-grown rival offering at the time was Doctor Who—still going strong—about an old bloke who travels round the universe with a young woman assistant in a 1960s police box. It was a post-imperial eccentricity that would not sell well beyond Dover.

West Wing, I now see, boldly went where TV seldom went before: into a universe where audiences are presumed to include intelligent life.

Star Trek and Dr. Who titillated with ideas, as sci-fi is meant to do, but essentially relied on action to hold the attention. West Wing’s only action is a bit of striding up and down the corridors of power between meetings. It relies not on the pace of events, nor even on situation, but on the pace of wit and argument, ideas, repartee and stirring speeches emanating from talking heads. This was adventurous stuff for mass culture—vindicated, to boot, by good ratings—but it was a logical leap of faith for this glittering panegyric to American liberalism.

The women have come some way from long legs and short skirts. True, several regulars are homely, secretarial types, practical people keeping the men serviced and grounded (and at times providing light relief with their funny little preoccupations, a foil for male brilliance). Yet Press Secretary, C. J., lead torch-bearer for professional women, takes a deep breath as she enters the overwhelmingly male briefings and holds her own with fluency and tact. (Are we being invited to see tact rather than, say, thinking, as a female attribute?) She struggles at times with the detail that male colleagues so effortlessly command, and she has at times to fight—come on, C. J., we’re all rooting for you—for inclusion in the innermost circle of advisers. And she is often (intuitively, one supposes) correct in her prognoses (notably of public opinion: she is keeping the men in touch with reality.) Josh Lyman’s assistant, Donna, loyal as a Spaniel, also displays enough wit, as she patters down the corridor at her master’s heels, to let us know that she may be blonde and cutely self-effacing but is far from dumb; and we get occasional snapshots of feisty female troublemakers on the Republican side.

And the men! The lugubriously awkward egghead Communications Chief, Toby Ziegler—series creator, Aaron Dorkin’s alter ego?—is so ineffably sweet and otherworldy that one wants to hug him, take him home and look after him. (He needs his own Donna.) Speechwriters Sam and Josh are like perky centre forwards one wills on to score another goal; who wouldn’t want to patter down a corridor after them? Chief of Staff Leo, the eyes of age, has the battle-scarred wisdom of Solomon, while President Jed Bartlett is so brainy, with all the world’s facts at his fingertips, that one can hardly believe he is of the same species as a Reagan or a George W. I now see how the Oliver Stone film, ‘W,’ (which I caught in more timely fashion, on a plane to somewhere) was geared to an audience habituated to The West Wing, whence it drew its potency as an alternative reality. Not much potency though: who actually wants, unless trapped on a plane, to sit through a film showing that Bush was a dangerous idiot? It was not a piece of work that would change anybody’s mind about anything.

It is The West Wing’s unrelenting idealism, not its faux realism, which seduces. These lovely people are true believers in human perfectibility, fearlessly taking on the pork barrel, campaign funding, corporate interests, Christian fundamentalists, white supremacists, the National Rifle Association et al. Obstacles, some insurmountable, abound, and although inventive in the arts of the possible, the team strenuously resists any temptation to bend or break the ground-rules, which are treated with quasi-religious respect. Victories are modest, progress incremental. Everything must be won primarily by force of reason, fired from within by core values, and in the end those values will prevail: it just requires plenty of patience and hard work, sacrificing all private life to the call of duty. (Few more so than poor C. J. For fear of professional conflicts she won’t even kiss that drippy Washington Post reporter with the terrible haircut—well, she only kisses him once anyway—whereas Sam kicks off the series by innocently venturing into bed with a well-coiffured, dope smoking, upmarket hooker. Is this a sign that 1999 woman had not yet reached full equality, that men have greater rights to explore the moral frontiers, or just that they have no self control and need to be shepherded by women?)

This would soon get dull—and actually, after a while, it often is—if it did not reveal any deeper undertows and tensions. A Vice President, whose Unprincipled Ambition needs to be bullied or wheedled onside, thus serves to remind us that not all Democrats are moral virtuosi. And the staff team does include one rather screechy voice—that of Communications Consultant, Mandy—who showed a propensity for dodgy politics by once working for the other side. Her role is interestingly ambiguous, perhaps signalling uncomfortable recognition that ‘communication’ can be as much the enemy as the ally of rational persuasion. The routine demands of the media battle are taken for granted: Republicans plot publicity ambushes (low-down exposés) at critical times and the White House saves bad news for Fridays when public hearts and minds are preoccupied with week-end entertainments; but Bartlett’s team generally copes with media flak by playing a straight bat and ignoring Mandy’s more tacky suggestions. In a private briefing, a troglodyte talk radio hostess gets an impromptu but dazzling dressing down from President Jed whose encyclopaedic brain churns out apposite Bible quotes faster than Wikipedia. If this is all rather glib—there is nothing here to help us understand how dangerous idiots get elected—there is at least some gentle probing of fundamentals. When the gun debate comes up, for instance, someone, I can’t remember if it is Sam or Josh, blusters about the need not only to represent and be accountable to, but also to lead the unenlightened mob. A sassy young Republican proto-convert (female) rounds on him: “You just don’t like people who like guns.” Touché! How more liberal can you get than allowing your enemy to score direct hits?

But hang on a bit. This scene occurs in Season Two. We may guess that by then the show has come under pressure to be less partisan. Yet that’s okay, for this is not just an inclusive world—ostentatiously recognising and promoting the contribution of women, Hispanic, black and deaf people—it is also a forgiving and therapeutic one. Everyone can be rehabilitated: alcoholics, drug addicts, sex workers . . . a glitter of gold can at times be discerned even in the hearts of passing Bible thumpers. And thus in Season Two it transpires that rabid Republicans also have a contribution to make and can be brought onside. Indeed, the sassy proto-convert single-handedly reconfigures a Major Policy Initiative in the course of just one rational conversation with Sam. (But, er, doesn’t that rather erode the democratic process?) Leo really ought to send Josh and Sam off hunting for a week-end so they might learn to like gun lovers. Toby might have trouble, though; one suspects him of being a closet vegetarian.

Somewhere far off-screen is a world of foreigners to whom, at times, America must react. Terrorists blow up a plane. India and Pakistan square up to each other (whereupon the White House calls on a drunken, upper-class British twit to explain the recesses of the Indo-Paki mind. Nice to know we’re still useful for something.) A Russian missile explodes in a Siberian silo. A containerload of oppressed Chinese Christians washes up in California. An African head of state arrives to plead for cheaper anti-retrovirals and turns out to be quite an educated chap but, alas, he falls victim to a palace coup in his absence.

In none of this is there any sense of the active pursuit of American interests, of interventions to shape the wider world, of an American agenda. There is, at times, righteous indignation. In one of the earliest episodes, the President’s personal physician perishes in the plane that terrorists blow up. Bartlett is so upset that he contemplates wiping Syria off the map—which would have the additional merit of showing the military that he’s no pussy—but he wrestles with his better judgement and finally accepts the routine, ‘proportional’ response of a few bombing raids. Many episodes later, he has to deliver some sharp home truths to the Russian Ambassadress. But this is all a matter of puissance oblige, duties that come with the job, not a matter of pro-active effort. America is a passive and indulgent power, sighing compassionately over the misfortunes and misfits of elsewhere; but with patience and time, reasoned debate and values, even foreigners will get it in the end. This is a wonderfully generous global vision whose detachment from reality need not detain us here in detail. It is enough to know that this is how many decent Americans saw things, or wanted things to be, how they thought America ought to be, even as the real president and his men were casting about for new bad guys, even as hornets from a nest built with US dollars in Afghanistan were preparing to sting America quite badly.

The West Wing is not, in any simple sense, ‘propaganda.’ It is, of course, didactic, seeking simultaneously to educate, persuade and entertain—quite a dizzy bit of blurring—but ingenuously so, with its heart wide open on its sleeve. It is this earnestness that makes it such a vibrant and alluring cultural product. Add to this the relentlessly demotic impulse—the desire to make every thought transparent and accessible, pared down to bullet-point fundamentals articulated by brainy but ordinary folk who snack on fast foods and wind down by playing poker at night, people you might stand next to on the subway, and who might let Donna input into a Policy Initiative on her way to the bathroom—and one is left either with attention deficit disorder or else with heightened affection for this idealistic place which has so shaped the way we all communicate.

One and a half Seasons are enough for now, though. It palls after a while, character and consistency inevitably slip. We’ll take a break for a couple of months then skip to Season Four to see how liberalism copes with 9/11 trauma. And I look forward to a dotage being entertained by visions of the Obama years.

Nick Young
Kampala, November 20, 2009