If only life re­ally im­i­tated the art of The West Wing

The Intelligencer (Belleville) - - OPINION - ROBIN BARANYAI write.robin@baranyai.ca

It’s spec­u­lated the mas­ter show­man just might sur­prise ev­ery­one by at­tend­ing the White House Cor­re­spon­dents’ As­so­ci­a­tion Din­ner. The last pres­i­dent to skip the event was Rea­gan, and he’d just been shot.

Hav­ing de­clared war on the press, U.S. pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump has tweeted his un­will­ing­ness to en­ter the den of the en­emy. Yet there would be a tidy sym­me­try — re­turn­ing to the scene of the fate­ful roast where, in 2011, Pres­i­dent Barack Obama played for laughs at Trump’s ex­pense — a hu­mil­i­a­tion some the­o­rize prompted him to run for of­fice in the first place.

A con­so­nant dilemma was pre­saged on The West Wing, Aaron Sorkin’s po­lit­i­cal drama. At a cor­re­spon­dents’ din­ner, fic­tional pres­i­dent Jed Bartlet nails one-lin­ers while his less for­mi­da­ble vice-pres­i­dent, “Bingo Bob,” de­liv­ers a sub­stan­tive ad­dress, one eye on the party nom­i­na­tion. Later, speech­writ­ers wran­gle over the per­ils of help­ing an ill-qual­i­fied can­di­date ap­pear pres­i­den­tial just be­cause he might be electable.

“I don’t care who you sur­round this guy with, he’s go­ing to wield a tremen­dous amount of power,” warns Toby Ziegler, com­mu­ni­ca­tions di­rec­tor. “Go find some­one you can hon­estly re­spect.” If only life did im­i­tate art. There are many mo­ments of sym­me­try, no­ticed while binge­watch­ing The West Wing through an un­shake­able flu, which set in shortly after Trump’s inau­gu­ra­tion. It turns out, the an­ti­dote to a reck­less world leader and a lin­ger­ing cold is pre­cisely the same: bed rest and a steady stream of po­lit­i­cal ide­al­ism.

Be­gin­ning in 1999, The West Wing but­tressed view­ers through the wan­ing months of Clin­ton’s scan­dalplagued pres­i­dency. It was in­spir­ing and pas­sive-ag­gres­sive, modelling a kinder, no­bler White House.

Van­ity Fair de­scribed the show’s im­pact: “It was as if each week Sorkin and his col­leagues were writ­ing the counter-fac­tual, shoulda-been his­tory of the Gore ad­min­is­tra­tion.”

Open­ing a win­dow into the back­rooms of Washington, Sorkin’s tidy nar­ra­tive arcs al­ways landed com­fort­ably where the moral compass pointed. In the post-truth chaos of the past eight weeks, such op­ti­mism is more want­ing than ever.

The show en­gaged in thought­ful pol­icy de­bate. It ex­posed the folly of par­ti­san con­straints on sci­en­tific re­search. It skew­ered hy­per-ad­ver­sar­ial Se­nate con­fir­ma­tion hear­ings.

Time and again, the show tack­led is­sues of ter­ror­ism and racial profiling. In the fraught weeks after 9/11 — a time when real-life Amer­i­cans of Arab de­scent were be­ing ran­domly ha­rassed and as­saulted in the streets — a spe­cial episode ex­plored the na­ture of an­tiAmer­i­can ex­trem­ism. Seiz­ing a teach­able mo­ment, se­nior staff likened the con­nec­tion be­tween Is­lam and Is­lamic ex­trem­ism to that be­tween Chris­tian­ity and the KKK.

It’s hard to imag­ine this per­spec­tive would hold sway in an ad­min­is­tra­tion fight­ing to ban travel from some Mus­lim-ma­jor­ity coun­tries. An ad­min­is­tra­tion that can’t de­nounce a con­gress­man’s xeno­pho­bic out­burst — “We can’t re­store our civ­i­liza­tion with some­body else’s ba­bies” — en­dorsed by for­mer KKK grand wizard David Duke.

Suc­cess­ful TV shows of­ten owe their ap­peal to a dose of nos­tal­gia. If the U.S. never had a gov­ern­ment quite so earnestly prin­ci­pled as the fic­tional Bartlet ad­min­is­tra­tion, at least it was once a place where this civic-minded ver­sion of gov­er­nance was em­braced as an ideal.

There’s a pal­pa­ble nos­tal­gia, if not for ide­al­ism, at least for a time when gov­ern­ment seemed sane. A time when cabi­net ap­point­ments un­der­stood their port­fo­lios and words were con­nected to truth. When life im­i­tat­ing art tran­scended a cheap re­al­ity show.

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