As I pointed out recently, I’m in the process of watching every season of the The West Wing from start to finish having never seen even one single episode previously. As of 3AM this morning I’m about a quarter of the way through the third season, so obviously there is much to come that I am not aware of as this post from Ian Millhiser makes clear. In it, Millhiser reviews the Bartlett administration and finds it as lacking in a way that ostensibly mirrors the Obama administration.
After nearly an entire term in the White House, Bartlet’s economic record was so dismal that it is a miracle he was reelected. Consider his attempt to literally defend this record before God (who he also calls a “feckless thug”): “3.8 million new jobs, that wasn’t good? Bailed out Mexico. Increased foreign trade. 30 million new acres of land for conservation. Put Mendoza on the bench. We’re not fighting a war.”
3.8 million jobs sure sounds like a lot, but at the time Bartlet made this speech, it added up to just over 90,000 jobs during each month of his presidency — far less than the country needs just to keep up with population growth. This kind of stagnant growth could be excused if President Bartlet, like President Obama, presided over our emergence from an historic recession, but the Bartlet Administration experienced no similar economic calamity.
President Bartlet’s inattentiveness to the 99 percent cannot be dismissed because economic justice doesn’t make good television. Screenwriters could not design a better villain than James Clark McReynolds, the Supreme Court Justice who systematically undermined FDR’s New Deal and routinely referred to President Roosevelt as a “crippled son-of-a-bitch.” Lyndon Johnson’s transformation from southern segregationist to civil rights crusader reached a climax that literally brought Martin Luther King to tears. President Obama’s drawn out battle over the Affordable Care Act is riddled with the kinds of crushing defeats, unexpected setbacks and narrow triumphs that fiction writers dream of recreating.
Ultimately, the Bartlet Administration was a failed opportunity because President Bartlet never once sought out these kinds of battles. Protecting choice or welcoming gays into the military (something the Bartlet Administration supported but never accomplished) are important prongs of the progressive agenda, but a liberalism that’s uninterested in income inequality or ensuring that no American ever dies because they cannot afford to treat a curable disease is both a recipe for electoral defeat and a tragedy of moral neglect.
The obvious point here is that The West Wing was a television show which ended in 2007 and was about a fictional President and it bears only a slight resemblance to the current political landscape; to say nothing of the current president’s somewhat duskier hue which makes him that horse of another color we keep hearing about.
Less obvious is the fact that, while The West Wing had a political agenda (ofttimes delivered in the thuddingly simplistic expository manner), it was primarily a crash course on the sausage-making that is policy development, how political messaging works, and, most importantly, the humanity, moral crises, compromises, personal failings, and inter-personal relationships of people who have voluntarily inserted themselves into extraordinary circumstances where success or failure can hinge upon the use or misuse of a single adverb. Anything else is missing the point of the show and hashing over the imagined progressive failings of the Bartlet administration (as people are currently doing at the ThinkProgress site in the comments) is like engaging in a symposium on the maritime failures of the Skipper and Gilligan. And why did all of those passengers on the Minnow have so much luggage if it was only three hour tour? Discuss.
The West Wing was about the art of the possible and how we are handcuffed by both external realities and the fact that we are human and are therefore imperfect. Well, at least you guys are. It’s about trying to get from point A to point B without tripping over your personal baggage on the way. How good intentions generally aren’t enough to get things done and, on the rare occasions when they are, there is the possibility that the results may play out in unanticipated ways. The West Wing was about fighting the good fight in weekly 48 minute rounds and every round is scored a draw because the good fight never ends and we’ll pick it up again next week same time/same channel. It is about perseverance in the face of constant and sometimes inevitable disappointment.
So no scorecard needed, thank you. We don’t need to beat ourselves up over our imaginary failures; we already have enough real ones to keep us busy until the end of time.