If there is one American Television series for me, it is The West Wing.
As is the case for everything timeless, The West Wing has, in my mind, long transcended its initial identity as a TV drama. It is an idealistic hail, a grand gesture of patriotism, and a living reminder of how decent and powerful a television series can be. It is about politics, but it is also about everything, from humanity and idealism to the nature of power and companionship, that come with politics, the quintessential human endeavor.
For how consequential it has been, as a political drama for America and a stirring instructor for me, I have found it almost an imperative to write this piece, and it may well end up being less of a proper review than of a love letter, to that small group of thoughtful people who tried, with all their strengths and struggles, to nudge the world an inch closer to its better future.
The political topics touched upon in The West Wing are as relevant today as it was first created and aired. Rising cost of higher education, diplomatic relations with Russia, policies concerning migrants, arguments for foreign aid, funding for pure scientific explorations, (endangering) spirit of bipartisanship, or virtues of a presidential candidate, to name a few. Decisions on these issues and more have, over the years, defined America’s national character. So they are important. But a well-informed documentary can engage in similar discussions, with dimmer wit perhaps, but all the same. So to me, relevancy is only a tip of the ice berg that is this series. The West Wing is inimitable, and its charms have to do with its core.
The West Wing is a show firmly rooted in reality. Any reality has two layers. The first contains the actions, facts, and phenomena that we easily see. It concerns acknowledged occurrences. The second layer, much more elusive and the perennial object of study for seekers, contains fundamental principles and patterns that account for and govern happenings in the first layer. When I say The West Wing is rooted in reality, I refer to its roots in the latter. I mean that it is logical. This is no small feat. It demands from its creators an exceptional level of perception, honesty, and commitment. Perception to understand the deeper reality, honesty to stand by unabridged truths, and commitment to guard the work from temptations for the easier and shallower. The West Wing does not create a make-believe world in which its protagonists and their messages always prevail. It creates honest confrontations, includes disappointing compromises, and develops decisions that characterize thinking adults. The series progresses in a manner much like someone who insists on growing the hard way: she installs hurdles in her own path and is cautious in her promises for a brighter future. She does not go for the cheap high.
The series is undeniably an eulogy for elitism. Some find this repulsive, I, on the other hand, find it hopeful. There is a Chinese history book on the Ming Dynasty that I love. I have it in two physical copies and two digital copies, to make sure that I can access it almost anytime and anywhere I want. On a recent re-read, I came across a commentary passage, which soon found its way to my notebook. It talks about the group of highly educated and prominent political elites who had hitherto ruled the country (effectively). They represented the brightest minds of their generations, and they believed in their “DAO“, a system of virtues and responsibilities to be upheld by men of their standing. To translate roughly, “the spirit of this group of elites is, essentially, conservatism, smugness, inflexibility, disdain for ignorance, and an unwavering faith in principles and justice. They believe that they were born for extraordinary things. They believe that it is their duty to care for those without their means and unacquainted with their names. They believe that there is a humane, just, and glorious future waiting, that world of their dreams, which would render all the struggles worthy.” Civil servants of democratic America may differ in one way or two from politicians of imperial China (thankfully). But I see the possibility for a similar dream. I see that in The West Wing. And I often think that if our best efforts are dedicated to raising standards, instead of making peace with mediocrity, we might go further than we would believe.
The West Wing is a discourse on power, and I think it displays a heartening maturity on the subject. In many ways, the only absolute thing about power may well be that there is no absolute power. This does not have to do with the power holder’s capacity, but with the nature of power and rivalry, and the exceedingly complicated state of affairs one faces at the apex of power. At the highest level of this game, emotions, vengeance, or vanity stand pitiful chances. Responsibilities, which ultimately transform into shackles, accompany without invite. Behind every sleepless night, every hesitation, every compromise, and every situation of seeming helplessness endured by Bartlet and C.J. and Leo and Toby and Sam and Josh, lies an exceptional capacity for true leadership and genuine caring. I am scared to imagine an alternative reality with Frank Underwood or Donald Trump.
This is Sorkin’s liberal utopia. I guess I lied a little when I said the series does not indulge in a make-believe world. Perhaps it does. I once heard someone in an interview say, “I am not optimistic. I am hopeful. There is a vast difference between the two.” Every other detail of that interview eludes me by now, but I retained that line. The West Wing is not blind optimism to me. It is an inspiring hopeful. I wish our world does not soon render it a comical illusion.
I return to Leo, Jed, C.J., Josh, Toby and Sam from time to time. I hear Bartlet say, “Leo, corruption of the best is the worst.” And I’m home.