After the West Wing by George Merrill

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My wife and I watch old movies on TV. We also watch reruns of some TV series. It’s nice not having to endure commercials. One night recently we elected to watch West Wing, a popular TV series that we enjoyed years ago. One of the perks of aging and its memory deficits is that when viewing an old movie or TV series we’ve seen, even when reading a book, I’d read years ago, it seems like a brand-new experience.

The series ran during the George W. Bush era. The country became enthralled with The West Wing. My wife, Jo, was an uncompromising West Wing junkie. Wednesday night became a kind of secular Sabbath during which time all normal activities were shelved to honor the latest episode. In fact, one year, when I proposed we go out for dinner on Wednesday, my birthday, she said we couldn’t; it was West Wing night.

The West Wing, first shown in 1999, was an instant success. Critiquing it, Atlantic Magazine rated it as one of the best TV series to date. It was skillfully written, and heart-fused, with characters easy to identify with, whose bantering with each other included generous portions of sparkling repartee. Watching it was fun and informative. The series’ political leaning was liberal idealism. However, the narrative played out less as party promotion than an examination of the complexities of governing during that era.

We settled in and watched two of the episodes. Inexplicably half way into the second one, I felt close to tears. It so surprised me that I dared not look at my wife lest she think I was either losing it or a sentimental old fool . . . or both.

I didn’t understand my reaction; what nerve had the revisiting of West Wing touched?

I watched an episode that involved the issue of a presidential pardon and the pressure capital punishment opponents were putting on the White House to grant a pardon to a convicted murderer on death row. It was a no win. If President Jed Bartlett did not pardon the man accused of three murders, he would earn the wrath of the victims’ survivors along with those holding the almost universal sense of justice that lives latent in all of us: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. That the state should take a life at all became a part of the agonizing that President Bartlett struggled with as he considered what his responsibility was as a human being as well as the president.

I remember thinking as Bartlett processed his thoughts with a priest – it’s clear the priest did not advocate capital punishment – how I would handle such a morally complex issue considering all the factors involved. In the end, Bartlett acted by not intervening and the execution took place as scheduled on a Monday morning. The scene was a portrait of a powerful man, a decent one with a sense of compassion and enormous responsibility having to make a horrible decision. It was eminently human and very tragic.

I was drawn into what was good drama while at the same time experiencing for myself what some committed public servants in government must struggle with. The burden of power is responsibility.

For all its liberal leanings, both sides of controversial issues of the day were debated, issues like the environment, refugees, education, race relations and gay rights, offering a balanced view of what the country was grappling with.

I realized what had moved me so: I was seeing a political world as I wished it were today. Perhaps I was mourning a world that never really existed.

In the way, The West Wing is presented, the cabinet and White House staff, although they frequently clash, like and trust each other. We see aspects of their humanity as it gets provoked by defeats or buoyed in victories. There are genuine bonds of affection among the principles who guide the country’s destiny. They take their jobs seriously and enjoy governing. They are professional. The characters are cast as genuinely interested in the people, and in serving the country. They function as a team.

If it is true that the art and entertainment of any era reflect the popular mood, this may not be good news.

I note with concern that after West Wing, two other government series were introduced on TV and have enjoyed significant popularity. One is called “Scandal,” the other, “House of Cards.” I watched most of both.

They create a very sinister portrait of the workings of politics and government, in America and in Britain. Both series savor of that forbidden allure that only evil can provide us. While I avowedly disdain such evil, I confess that I watched many episodes glued fast to the tube. It was like watching a boa constrictor swallowing a live pig; I found it as fascinating as it was repulsive. Contract killings, performed in the shadows serve the ends of Crisis Management Consultant and lover to the president, Olivia Pope, and her band of creepy associates. Those same bloody means served the very charming and unscrupulous American President, Francis Underwood (FU) or his conniving British Prime Minister counterpart, Francis Urquhart (FU) in the British and American versions of House of Cards.

The extent to which the murderous cut throat plotting dominates these series, it places them in another moral universe compared with The West Wing.

I find it no small irony that House of Cards and Scandal reflect today’s political atmosphere, a very different one prevailing at the time when The West Wing viewed, even considering the controversy surrounding the Bush presidency.

The political TV series following The West Wing make no attempt to credit government, its appointees or its elected officials with anything near having a vision or working from a set of ideals. They act from total expediency. They inhabit an amoral world where no holds are barred and the task is to win while destroying enemies.

At the time of the West Wing series, gun legislation and immigration were on the table. Today, refugees the world over are changing the face of nations. I’ve wondered if it may be immigrants that will help America reclaim its soul, the way African–Americans began restoring the soul of white America. Or will it be our young people who restore it?

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist.  A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.

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