Sunday, November 9, 2008

The West Wing Teaches Real Civics

In the late 1990's though 2006, one television show foreshadowed this historic election. President Matt Santos' race for the presidency is chronicled in the last two tense seasons of The West Wing. His character came into being after a real life electrifying speech given by a state senator from Illinois running for a US senate seat to be the third African American elected to the senate in the history of the nation. To understand Matt Santos requires understanding the towering intellect of Nobel Laureate Josiah "Jed" Bartlet as a president from the Live Free or Die state that made no concessions for the viewing public to get up to speed about a presidency or politics.
This year in politics is often accompanied by statements about how much The West Wing as a TV show lived in the real life quest of the presidency in the 2008 campaign. Rahm loved the show so much he actually has an on camera extra spot in the episode, The Wedding. While Rahm may have inspired the creation of the Josh character, the actual job he will take is the one Leo McGarry played to much acclaim on the show, knuckle brawling super-smart marine, former alcoholic and Cabinet Secretary divorcée, Leo Thomas McGarry. The McGarry & Bartlet families were long time friends as are the Obamas & the Emanuels.
Others say the take-no-prisoners partisan nicknamed Rahmbo is a perfect fit for the him if he is to push through the radical changes he seeks.
The inspiration for The West Wing’s fictional deputy chief-of-staff, Josh Lyman, the most unlikely moments in the character’s story are plucked straight out of Mr. Emanuel’s reality.
When Lyman reads a Washington Post profile of him which tells how he sent a congressman a rotting fish in the post, he asks his assistant, Donna, if she was the source. In fact, it was Mr Emanuel – who reportedly once sent a pollster he had fallen out with the same gift – as a warning never to cross him again.
A man who is a cross between a practical yet politically savvy George Washington and a hip, edgy to the max Chris Rock is going into the White House. But first, one has to prepare to be the head of state. Up until 1936, elections happened in November and ascendancies and transfers of power came about on March 4. In one of the rare historical facts The West Wing show ever got wrong is in a scene in the East Room with Jed and his wife Abbey as they say goodbye to such a grand old house the morning of his successor's inauguration, stating why elections and the date happened. The subsequent versions of The West Wing have that error edited out.

Staff work will make or break a presidency. Presidential transitions require minute attention to detail while drinking water from a thousand freely flowing water hoses all at once in public. Mistakes are magnified and have world wide implications. Secrets must be kept for the Common Good while remaining open to deserved criticisms. During chaotic transitions like Bill Clinton, the culture of DC seeped in to taint the cabinet picks. In the middle of his 1992 transition, President-elect Clinton and the future First Lady, held a two day US economic summit with a wide diversity of guests. President-Elect Obama will send emissaries to the global economic summit next weekend held by the current president in deference of the immutable fact that there is only one president at a time.

In West Wing episodes, the amount of staff and advance work to create the right presidential look and feel and the detailed policy positions is done by a security clearance staff, known since 1939 as the Executive Office of the President of the United States (EOP), knowing what is needed. So far Barack Obama has only three direct reports, a VP, a Chief of Staff and his campaign strategist turned Senior Adviser, David Axelrod, with over a thousand left to hire to cram into a small amount of space in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. We are awaiting Michelle Obama's staff choices for the East Wing. The staff work on The West Wing delivers a great description of balancing multiple burning clouds of toilet paper in a public windstorm that has to be explained every day to the co-equal partners in Government - the Judicial branch, the Legislative branch and most of all the American people. Sausage making is much cuter.


The beneficiary of this year's election are regular people who believed they have a stake in the outcome. It was a Children's Crusade amped up 21st century style for a member of my generation, Generation Jones or Gen X, to become president by engaging the young. Without the young as partners, no major changes take place. But the young have to be determined, persistent and knowledgeable. It was not an accident that Boomer parents became introduced to the intensity of this election through their GenX or GenY children. What is a tremendous change is the amount of intellectual firepower the young packed in understanding the issues, the candidates, but most importantly the civic responsibility of service. It was noted by the entire world as a 180 change in direction from the eight year dictatorship of George W. Bush who plundered and pillaged America's Constitution because so many people had a lapsed understanding of the founding documents and principles of Democracy.

One of Al Gore's laments was the number of minds that were blank blackboards on basic facts about how the machinery of the US government worked. Budget cuts and apathy accomplished the kneecapping of many US Government classes or a clogging of mental synapses as a result of wet noodle versions taught in some social studies classes. Gore expounded on the topic of the disengagement of detached parent and apathetic student alike, enumerating the dire consequences of such an illogical mindset in the opening pages of his excellent primer, The Assault on Reason. Elections have consequences. The most tremendous two year presidential campaign of all time is rendering a lack of civics knowledge obsolete with the events of 4 November, 2008. Barack Obama uses the term the Joshua generation for all those who are essentially a part of Generation Obama. A side benefit is the entire world that held America in eight years of disdain is now signing up for introductory classes via newscasts, newspapers and the internet right alongside enthusiastic Americans of all ages to understand the intricate plumbing of our Democracy. My love of history has to go back to a Frenchman, Alexis de Tocqueville, who wrote the seminal two volume travelogue political theory books, Democracy in America or De la démocratie en Amérique (1835 & 1840) on a young American nation to find something remotely comparable.

Jonathan Alter, roving senior editor for Newsweek, wrote his book, The Defining Moment: FDR's Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope, about the heralded first hundred days of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's presidency. That has been the measure the press obsesses about ever since to see if brand new presidencies can sparkle like FDR's. Barack Obama is planning on an accomplished first 100 days, but not one presidency has been successful without a planned focused transition. Mr. Obama sees this book as required reading.

This post is part of The Transition Series to the presidency of Barack Obama
(Please note, posts listed by date)

4 comments:

TFK Bob said...

Obama revealed on "60 Minutes" tonight that he is reading the book about FDR's first 100 days.

Irving said...

It's a great book, and I think President Obama will do even better in his first 100 days. And the economy is equally as bad, if not worse in many ways, as it was in 1932.

SPENCER said...

You should read this NYT article that came out in late Oct. about the West Wing and Obama:
http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/30/arts/television/30wing.html?scp=1&sq=west%20wing%20Obama%20TV&st=cse

Maureen said...

Thanks for the comments and the article recommend!