I mentioned last Christmas that probably my favorite gift was a boxed set of West Wing DVD’s. Sometime around mid-January, husband and I cracked open the box and waded into the 47 discs that comprised the seven-season series. Last night, we watched the last three episodes. Everything came to a satisfying conclusion: a vigorous young Democrat was duly installed in the White House to take over for the weary, scandal-worn and not altogether successful Jed Bartlett. The changing of the surrounding guard mingled the mists of nostalgia with high-powered visions for the future.
The West Wing debuted in 1999. Many of the writers and consultants were
fresh from gigs in the Clinton Administration. The events that would shape American politics
for the first decade of the new millennium were still on the horizon. The 2000 election debacle. 9/11.
Iraq and Afghanistan.
Filibusters. Sarah Palin. All the events that pushed many of us to the
far left shoulder of the middle of the political road.
But in 1999, the country was already well on its way to the
paralyzing political polarization in place today. Republicans, stung by Bill Clinton’s ability to
emerge victorious in 1992 despite unceasing attacks on his character and business
dealings, hounded Clinton throughout his presidency, seriously hampering his
ability to govern. This was especially
true during his second term, when the single-minded refusal of congressional Republicans
to bow to the will of the American people and play the hand the election had
dealt them reached its crescendo in the sensational impeachment saga of 1998-99.
This was perhaps our first real experience of the “new”
Republican modus operandi—the policy that
permanently elevated the promotion,
the will and the good of the Republican Party over more trivial matters like
forming a more perfect union, providing for the common defense, insuring
domestic tranquility, and promoting the general welfare. In those dismal months, government took an ignominious
back seat to party politics. And has
remained there ever since.
So Aaron Sorkin had plenty of raw material to work
with. There was enough historical skullduggery and
partisan maneuvering imprinted upon the political consciousness to provide us
with a fascinating glimpse into the inner workings of the highest office in the
What struck me most about those “old” West Wing episodes was
the eerie recognition of the absolute topicality of the plotlines. As if they were ripped right out of the
headlines. Because they were.
More than a decade ago. The unfortunate truth is, they still are. Twelve years, and this country is still
tossing around the same political footballs.
Abortion. Equality for
women. Gay marriage. Medicare reform. Judicial confirmations. Gun control.
Budget turmoil. Illegal immigration
and border security.
Honestly, if I did not KNOW that show was over ten years
old, I would have thought it was written last night. How shameful is it that we can gaze out over
the political landscape and see the same legislative turd piles that have been
littering the countryside for more than a decade? Only now they’re bigger and smell a whole lot
Twelve years. The
Bush Administration managed to spend every minute after the 9/11 attacks, from 2001
to 2008, spinning the terrorist threat into justification to push an agenda that
either covertly or blatantly advanced the interests of its deep-pocketed
backers. Leading to, among other things,
the ship-wrecking of the American financial system just before GW abandoned ship. Hard to know whether that was deliberate or accidental.
At any rate, the timing was off…because the economic death-drop seemed
to be the determining factor in the Obama victory of 2008. All the election-tampering and
conservative-base-pandering in the world could not blind voters to the worst
economic disaster since the Great Depression; not enough to entice them to
sanction four more years of the same s**t,
As we were celebrating the Obama victory, anticipating the
return to some version of normalcy in the federal government, Congressional Republicans dug in their heels and declared that their primary goal, the one directive
that would form their every action from January 20, 2009 until the next
presidential election cycle, was to make
this president fail. And another
four years swirled down the toilet.
So it appears our intrepid elected officials have devised a
way to permanently derail the wheels of progress in America. The issues of real importance, the problems
that need to be solved, only get trotted out as hot-button issues at election
time (which seems to be ALL the time, these days…) or any time it appears that
calm and rationality might try for a serious comeback. And of course, if we actually addressed these issues and solved the problems, what would be left
to throw out there every two years to rile up the base? No doubt about it. Our government is Oh. So. Broken.
This is where I fervently wish that life could imitate art. Because in those final episodes of the West
Wing, two presidential candidates who embodied a return to the political center
duked it out in the election of 2006 (the fictional election cycle was two
years off of the actual…) The candidates actually agreed on many key issues. Each honored a tacit agreement to reject
negative campaigning. They met in a televised
debate that truly was a debate—(that
meant-to-be-edgy “live” episode that showcased, among other things, the
Democratic candidate’s vigorous defense of the word “liberal.”)
What rather sappily played as “hopeful” and “visionary”
seven years ago, comes off as pure laughable fantasy today—as embarrassingly
simplistic as the “morality play” of any sixties sit-com. We have left centrism so far behind that we couldn’t
find our political center with a map and a sextant.
not been the focus in Washington for a long time. Almost too long for many people to
remember. I know I’m older than dirt,
but as I write this, I think to myself, “Who am I talking to here? Everybody knows these things. We all lived through the same past twelve
years.” In reality, if you pay attention
to today’s political discourse, it’s as if the world began no more than a
couple of years ago and anything prior to that is incomprehensible primordial
muck. The word on the streets is that
everything was going along fine until Barack Obama came along with his deficits
and his wars and his bailouts that have sent the country to the brink of
Even so, at the end of last year, in spite of yet another ugly
campaign designed to demonize the president coupled with concerted efforts to
disenfranchise voters who might lean in his direction, Obama emerged
victorious. The Republican Party was
handed its head in an election that was not nearly as close as they stubbornly broadcast
up to the minute their candidate was declared the loser on national
television. For about ninety seconds, we
cherished a glimmer of hope that this fact might actually inspire the party to put
its failed obstructionist policies in the past and go back to the business of
The first action of the Republican controlled House of
Representatives was to trot out a budget plan that had been proposed (and
rejected!) by the losing vice-presidential candidate. “You have to show the people what you believe
in!” they asserted, as they invested the first weeks of the tenure of the new
Congress into an empty political gesture.
became fiscal reality after no compromise between the executive and legislative
branches would be reached to circumvent it.
The Senate recently returned from its Spring break so it can
use the filibuster to prevent gun legislation from coming to a vote.
Not looking too good, is it?
Governing? Meh. Bring back Matt Santos and Arnie Vinick.