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MARTHA MUZYCHKA: 'West Wing’ revisited — imagining politics on a higher plane

Jed Bartlet, as played by Martin Sheen, was the president on the TV series “The West Wing.” — Reuters

Jed Bartlet, I’m sorry to say, was never real. It’s just that millions of people, including some who wouldn’t agree with his politics, wish he was.

Especially now, maybe.

Bartlet, as played by Martin Sheen, was the president on the TV series “The West Wing,” which aired on NBC from 1999 to 2006.

The show was about the day-to-day work of the inner circle of the White House, and the issues the staff tackled, and just as often, the issues that tackled the staff.

Our family has been revisiting the series this fall, and it’s been so enjoyable to rediscover Aaron Sorkin’s crisp dialogue, the talents of the cast, the “walk with me” sequences that moved the characters and issues around the corridors of the set.

What has really amazed me is how timely many of the plotlines are, if not prescient: climate change, racism, violence against women, police brutality, poverty, gun control, Supreme Court vacancies, the inherent corruption of political fundraising. The list goes on, and we’re still in Season 2.

It’s startling to compare the scenes and plots with what’s been reported from the White House over the last few years.

Some of the issues and dialogue do not age well, and that’s a good thing. For example, in one episode, the usually wise Leo makes a crack to the president’s aging secretary about “turn(ing) back the Indians” with a musket.

Although not as diverse a show as ones today (and we’re still needing to do better), “The West Wing” modelled a presidency as it could and should be: diplomatic, thoughtful, well-researched and not abusive, profane or derogatory.

At the time, The West Wing was widely criticized as a Hollywood fantasy of the White House, one featuring a Nobel-Prize winning economics professor as president and who wore his Liberal politics on his sleeve, unafraid of being ripped a new one by the religious right, outsmarting them with takedowns that were as jam-packed with words as they were funny.

Today, it’s impossible not to think of “The West Wing” in light of the Trump era (and the election that is only three weeks away).

The characters on the show are a model for disagreement. They talk out their differences, and often they hold each other accountable. There are the sneaky political moments, like the one in the first season where the press secretary C.J. Cregg inadvertently lies to the press about troop movements on the India-Pakistan border because her colleagues in the Oval Office don’t trust her.

Scenes like that stick with you because they’re relatable, even if the stakes we face will never be so high.

It’s startling to compare the scenes and plots with what’s been reported from the White House over the last few years.

Surely it’s not a fantasy to imagine a political leadership that asks for research, and from multiple sources no less, before making a decision. Or one that consults widely before blurting out a thought, or that knows when it’s crossed a line.

With a reunion episode airing this week on HBO (surviving actors recreated a third-season episode on a stage, in an effort to promote voting in November’s elections), “The West Wing” does indeed feel timely again. The show is on magazine covers; interviews are posted to YouTube. There are podcasts (yes, plural) devoted to the show.

There’s no doubt the show was idealistic, perhaps even unrealistically so. But ideals, the common good, and responsible government are things we should respect. I read recently there were people so inspired by the show two decades ago, they chose public service and public policy as their career.

Jed Bartlet doesn’t exist, and sadly, neither does C.J., she of the quick wit and sharper mind. Perhaps though, we need to stop thinking of their aspirations — to make the world a better and safer place — as the stuff of fiction, but reality, as our blueprint for positive change now and in the future.

Martha Muzychka is a writer, columnist and occasional mask maker. Email: [email protected]


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