Let Bartlet be Bartlet

We’ve been through all seven seasons of The West Wing. I distinctly remember being heavily pregnant, curled up in our ’round chair’ (a family favourite), watching one episode after another on my husband’s massive Dell laptop in the study. Our son is now nearly three and we decided that enough time had passed to watch the series all over again. We’ve now just finished the First Season.

It’s been like a warm, happy reunion with old friends. And a little like falling in love again. The stars had truly aligned for this show: great writing, great cast, great production values, great themes.

It’s impossible not to compare and extrapolate past and current realities. That’s the beauty of The West Wing, after all. In Bartlet, as in Barack Obama and Kevin Rudd, there is a visionary streak, an uncompromising core, and more than a touch of ego. These erudite men were elected with the expectation that they would lead reforms.

In the episode, ‘Let Bartlet be Bartlet,’ the President finally accepts that his desire for re-election ran counter to reform and was frustrating his staff as well as the voters. He decides that it is time to speak without fear or favour. Chief of Staff Leo McGarry subsequently tells his close-knit White House team, “We will raise the level of public debate in this country and let that be our legacy.”

I suppose that’s the other dimension of The West Wing‘s deep-seated appeal: wishful thinking. How many viewers, even non Americans, wished that Bartlet and his staff were the ones running their country? Of course, reality has a way of deflating such fantasies. Rudd was unseated by his own party and deputy (in truth, partly through his own fault — by many accounts, he did not engender the sort of loyalty that Bartlet did). Obama now faces an increasingly belligerent media, Tea Party movement and Congress.

So what’s to be the legacy in all this? Not much in the way of public debate, I think. Bartlet and McGarry got it right. Sometimes, the right thing is the most unpopular. In this case, consensus is not the thing. It’s leadership. It’s about directing the conversation onto more important things, not allowing it to be hijacked by narrow interests. But then, it’s much easier to demonstrate leadership on television shows.

Categories: Miscellany

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