West Wing cast.

Photographer: David Rose/NBCU Photo Bank

Today's Politicians Could Use More Hollywood Style

Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park” and “Back Channel,” and his nonfiction includes “Civility” and “Integrity.”
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In an episode from the final season of “The West Wing,” a journalist asks Republican presidential candidate Arnold Vinick (played by Alan Alda) about a rumor that a flag was burned in the White House at a birthday party for the president’s daughter. Vinick replies that it was a private family event irrelevant to the campaign, and adds that politics is being ruined by putting such matters center stage.

That tale came to mind after C. J. Cregg showed up the other day to brief the White House press corps. The woman behind the lectern was actually the actress Allison Janney, whose fictional press secretary Cregg was the television show’s most popular character. And she was there on serious business. But I doubt that I am the only “West Wing” fan who found myself nostalgic for the program’s serious, pragmatic and respectful politics -- a politics that is missing today both on television and, worse, on the stump.

Consider the second-season episode where President Jed Bartlet decides to nominate the controversial Josephine McGarry, superintendent of schools in Atlanta, to a position in the Education Department. Conservative Republicans are furious. The administration, spoiling for a fight, nevertheless moves forward -- until a photograph emerges of Josephine at the scene of high school students being arrested for praying on school grounds to protest the banning of prayer.

There is nothing wrong with the arrest -- not legally.  The White House chief of staff, Leo McGarry, calls her into his office.  Josephine is full of energy, ready to fight, listing the names of groups that will be coming to her defense. Leo, who happens to be her older brother, tells her that he wants her to withdraw her name.  It turns out that she hired a free-lance photographer to take the picture. She was looking for a fight all along. “Now, we have laws and they are difficult and they have to be enforced, and it’s right that they’re enforced,” he tells her gravely. Then he adds one of the most memorable phrases ever spoken on the show: “But we do not strut, ever!”

Chastened, Josephine agrees to withdraw. There is an integrity to such a politics; a view that process matters, that in almost every case how one accomplishes a goal is as important as whether one does.  In Leo’s mind, hard choices -- arresting the praying protesters -- should evoke not a frisson of pleasure but a reluctant sadness.   “Those kids are commendable in this day in age,” he tells her. “Those kids are phenomenal.”

In the penultimate episode of season four, the president’s daughter Zoe is kidnapped from a party on the night of her college graduation.  Yes, the plot is absurdly farfetched. But this set-up leads to a pair of matching grace notes. In the season finale, Bartlet, now a grieving father, decides to invoke the 25th Amendment and step aside temporarily as president. Because his vice president has resigned in a scandal, this hands power to the Republican Speaker of the House, Glen Allen Walken.

     As the fifth season begins, Democrats inside and outside the White House fret about what administration policies Walken might overturn to please his conservative backers. This concern leads to the second, matching grace note. When news leaks that the acting president might nominate a vice president, Bartlet’s Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman rushes off to find Steve Atwood, Walken’s top aide (played in a splendidly creepy guest turn by Zeljko Îvanek).  Atwood lets him have both barrels:

We’re not stupid, Josh. We try to use this to our advantage, it’ll blow up in our faces. We’d seem callous and unfeeling, in contrast to Bartlet’s extraordinary gesture of courage and patriotism. And anyone who thinks otherwise, has a particularly craven way of looking at politics.

There are plenty of other examples of a politics far more mature than our own. Like the time a Democratic Senator, defeated in his re-election bid, refuses to vote for his pet cause in a lame duck session because the people of his state voted him out on precisely that issue. When a White House aide argues that he lost only because of unfair campaign attacks, the senator shoots back: “Well, that’s not for me to say. And I’m going to choose not to assume that my constituents feel a certain way because they were duped.” This level of political integrity -- about which I’ve written before -- is admirable in its exaltation of the process itself. It is also nowadays difficult to imagine.

Finally, let me mention the “West Wing” episode least likely to warm contemporary political hearts, although I consider it one of the most powerful. Owen Brady, a conservative activist on the Supreme Court, suddenly dies. The president’s choice to succeed him, Judge Evelyn Baker Lang (Glenn Close), is a brilliant liberal activist with no chance at confirmation in a Republican Senate. Should the administration settle for a middle-of-the-roader who can eke out enough votes to get through?

     The White House comes up with a clever solution. The president persuades the ailing chief justice, last of the great liberal lions, to step down, and nominates Lang as his successor. He simultaneously nominates a brilliant conservative to succeed Brady. Confirmation of both is assured. And what the writers plainly mean us to take from the episode is that the coup is less political than intellectual: it’s important, Bartlet decides, that the great arguments among the Justices continue.

     The “West Wing,” to be sure, emerged in a different era: the late years of Bill Clinton’s presidency. It hit its stride in the early years of the George W. Bush administration. Politics are harder-edged now. Victory and ridicule have replaced mutual respect and devotion to process as the cardinal virtues of public life. We are killing our democracy.  That’s why I was so delighted when, for a happy moment, C. J. Cregg took the podium to remind us of a time when, even in our fictional selves, we aspired to more.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Stephen L Carter at scarter01@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Susan Warren at susanwarren@bloomberg.net