In the midst of the recent ‘secretive’ leadership coups in Australian politics and the sudden resignation of our Foreign Minister, it’s nice to take a short break from real-life political drama and reflect on something a bit more idealistic, just for fun. Yes, it’s time to pontificate about the television experience that is The West Wing.
There’s just something wonderful about The West Wing.
(And if you haven’t seen it yet, be warned: there are spoilers if you read on)
It’s hardly a recent phenomenon: we’re talking about a show that aired in the late nineties and early noughties. A show where in the early seasons the mobile phones were clunky black plastic flip-outs with tiny screens. A show that inserted an ad-hoc special in the middle of its third season as a response to 9/11. A show that preceded – and in fact foretold – the election of a non-white US President who appointed a former opponent as Secretary of State.
But its popularity lasted years beyond its production. For many Gen X and Y it’s still on the list of must-have-watched television. I myself only discovered it after it had finished airing. I first saw it during a (prescribed) drug-induced haze following a wisdom teeth removal operation. Even through the blurriness of heavy pain-killers I knew I’d found something special. It ticked the boxes in my film-and-television-appraisal checklist: it was well written, beautifully made, and the subject matter was interesting. I discovered I wasn’t alone in my enthusiasm. I would encounter friends and acquaintances that loved it too, and our discovery of mutual West Wing appreciation would be an excited moment of artistic kinship. Perhaps we should consider a secret sign, like three fingers solemnly raised in a “W”. It was only inevitable that eventually one such fellow West Wing appreciator, Sharon, would invite me along to a little get-together we called the ‘West Wing Appreciation Group’ (WWAG), where we’d chat about life, eat, watch some WW episodes and – this is the nerdy bit – discuss them.
There are a lot of things I love about the show. I could rattle on about the composition and camera work, or the way they incorporate music, or the way they develop most of their characters slowly beyond two dimensions. But instead I thought we should reflect on a few little things that The West Wing can teach us, or at least reinforce for us. We’ll call it West Wing Wisdom. Saddle up, nerds.
West Wing Wisdom 1: Everything comes at a price.
It’s fair to say that the characters on the West Wing are achieving great things. They negotiate their way out of dangerous situations. They snatch little victories against injustice and discrimination. They take on the responsibility to reassure the nation when things are tough. And even though you may not always agree with their worldview on certain issues, you can see that they’re genuinely trying to help shape legislation that will make people’s lives better. I am often momentarily jealous of their dynamic working environment, their adrenalin-filled days and the way they can see the fruit of their hard work in such a significant, public way. But this comes at a price.
For these characters, that price is often functional human relationships. They rarely refer to social connections outside their colleagues. CJ grieves the fact that she can’t care for her sick father. Of the senior aides, only one has children – Toby – and his twins were born only after his marriage to the twins’ mother had failed. Issues around ‘romantic’ relationships in particular are highlighted (this is television, after all). None of them, with the exception of the President, are in what you’d call a longer-than-short-term functioning partner relationship (and the President’s marriage is by no means perfect). When some of them do grab the rare opportunity to pursue more intimate relationships, it’s more often than not interrupted or delayed by yet another urgent work deadline. Throughout the series we see examples of these brilliant, powerful people stumbling when the attempt to master the art of close human relationships. They are investing so much in their work that their minds and schedules are too crowded to properly deal with family, friends and potential romantic partners.
The Deputy Chief of Staff, Josh, talks frankly about this in Season 3, Episode 10. He is trying to explain to Amy, a lobbyist who he ‘like-likes’, why he is incapable of asking her out like a normal person. Says Josh: ‘I studied a lot in school. I studied hard in high school and at Harvard and in law school. My IQ doesn’t break the bank and I wanted to do this so I studied all the time. And I missed something, or it’s like I skipped a year, ’cause I never learned what you do after you think you like somebody – what you do next’.
Similarly, in Season 7, Episode 21, Press Secretary CJ is contemplating life after the White House. She takes a while to grasp that if she wants her long-awaited relationship with journalist Danny to work, she needs to include him in her decision-making. She admits to Danny that she doesn’t know how to navigate this relationship. ‘I missed the window. I… missed the window to figure out… how to do this’ she says. The President’s family is not immune to dysfunction either. Though his children are now grown, there are hints of the sting of absence felt by their daughters while they were growing up (see the President’s conversation with his eldest daughter Liz in Season 5, Episode 9).
So what’s the answer? Should these bright, successful, good-looking political hot-shots immediately throw down their blue folders, hand in their security passes and focus instead on being husband/wife/father/mother/buddy of the year?
Not necessarily. We all have different callings and different seasons in our lives, so it’s not for us to judge someone’s current career choice. We need people around who are willing to put in long hours so that our societies as a whole can function better. We need surgeons working through the night, journalists travelling to remote or risky locations, police taking on dangerous criminals at risk to their own lives, and even politicians putting in long hours to push through legislation, intervene in humanitarian crises and negotiate with foreign governments to ensure peace and stability.
But there is a price.
For every day spent travelling the world, that’s one less day to spend at home with loved ones. For every hour spent at home with loved ones, it’s one less hour spent campaigning for just causes. Working at a manic pace to complete a work project means that you’ll have a bit less emotional and physical energy left for other things. Studying hard means you won’t be socialising quite as much. Taking a job that you love and feel passionate about may mean taking a smaller salary.
If you’re following what you believe God is calling you to do, then these sacrifices will no doubt be worth it. But it’s important to understand that the sacrifices are real. Whether you’re working at the White House or not: everything comes at a price. And let’s not forget, even God isn’t immune. In pursuing what He is passionate about, He had to pay a price too.