I never saw “The West Wing” when it was on the air, for a number of reasons, not the least of which the fact that I wasn’t watching all that much television in those days. I basically had a TV for watching movies, and didn’t get into watching actual TV programming regularly until AMC started its string of must-watch shows (“Mad Men,” the first few episodes of “Rubicon,” “Breaking Bad,” “The Walking Dead”…).
There was one reason, though, that I particularly avoided “The West Wing.” I had heard, I suppose from a Republican, that it was a fantasy show for liberal Democrats, a picture of the way they would want the world to be. I was finding Democrats particularly tiresome — that is to say, more tiresome than usual — when the show went on the air in 1999. Most of the angry readers I was dealing with in that period were Democrats, between admirers of Bill Clinton (we were tied, I think, for being the first newspaper in the country to urge him to resign) and of Jim Hodges (the show premiered at a moment right in between his election, which we opposed, and our all-out fight against his signature issue, the lottery).
I just didn’t need to hear any more about how members of that party thought the world ought to be.
But I started watching it on Netlflix during my nightly workouts on the elliptical trainer (they’re almost the perfect length for a 40-minute workout), and the first thing I have to tell you is that what I had heard was a most unfair description of the show. Sure, there will occasionally be an instance in which the liberal position is treated briefly as the only one that’s right and true. For instance, as I mentioned the other day, I was pretty irritated when all the main characters acted like a potential judicial nominee who said there is no blanket right to privacy in the Constitution (there is none, whatever the Supremes may say) had said the Earth was flat.
But you’re just as likely to hear characters ably represent other points of view — such as the early episode in which several staffers point out why “hate-crime” laws are inconsistent with liberal democracy. For every red-meat moment such as the one in which President Bartlet humiliates a thinly disguised Dr. Laura using a rather trite liberal device (asking whether she was for literally applying everything in Leviticus), there’s one in which a conservative view wins out, or is at least fairly considered.
The best example of that so far was the episode I watched last night, the fourth in the second season, titled “In This White House.”
It started with an obnoxiously overconfident Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe) going on a political talk show to push an education bill. He is demolished on the air by a little blonde girl with a deferential Southern manner who looks to be about 16.
This causes a sensation in the White House. A delighted Josh runs to tell Toby, “Sam’s getting his ass kicked by a girl!” Toby — the Eeyore of the executive branch, a guy who is thrilled by nothing — comes running, saying breathlessly, “Ginger, get the popcorn!” (The good part of the above clip starts at about 2:20.)
But things really get interesting when the president — and Jed Bartlet really is everyone’s idea of a perfect president: wise, fatherly, kind, thoughtful, fair, idealistic, practical and always human — decides to hire Ainsley Hayes.
Enjoying Sam discomfiture at being humiliated by Ms. Hayes is one thing. Bringing the conservative Republican on board is another, and the idea causes much consternation on the staff.
But I think she’s going to be a great addition. As she goes through the throes of deciding whether to take the job, she becomes, if not exactly the voice of the UnParty, a lens for focusing on everything that is wrong in modern partisanship. She reprimands both sides for their destructive habit of demonizing their opponents. When Sam (his ego still bruised from his first encounter with her — he keeps thinking women on the staff are mocking him when they’re not) says defenders of the Second Amendment aren’t about freedom and protection; they’re just people who like guns… she settles his hash yet again by saying:
Yes, they do. But you know what’s more insidious than that? Your gun control position doesn’t have anything to do with public safety, and it’s certainly not about personal freedom. It’s about you don’t like people who do like guns. You don’t like the people. Think about that, the next time you make a joke about the South.
Then, in the episode’s penultimate scene, Ainsley meets two of her GOP friends in a restaurant. They think she has turned the job down, and they can’t wait to hear about the look on Chief of Staff Leo McGarry’s face. As she sits there looking thoughtful, her friends engage in the sort of rant that we hear too often from both sides.
“I hate these people,” says her friend Harriet.
“Did you meet anyone there who isn’t worthless?” adds Bruce.
“Don’t say that,” Ainsley says softly.
Bruce continues, “Did you meet anyone there who has any-?”
Ainsley lights into him:
I said don’t say that. Say they’re smug and superior, say their approach to public policy makes you want to tear your hair out. Say they like high taxes and spending your money. Say they want to take your guns and open your borders, but don’t call them worthless. At least don’t do it in front of me.
Her friends look stunned. She chokes up as she continues:
The people that I have met have been extraordinarily qualified, their intent is good.
Their commitment is true, they are righteous, and they are patriots.
And I’m their lawyer.
And she walks out.
Wow. If she didn’t look so extremely young, I’d be in love at this point. I think I’m really going to enjoy this character….