Video Club: The Impasse was More Fun on The West Wing

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Sometimes political truth is stranger than political fiction, but the fiction is always more fun.

For that reason, It's A Free Country brings you Video Club with Brian Lehrer, in which our veteran analyst looks at the fun-house mirrors of our government's (in)action: television and the silver screen. What did the writers get right, and where did they flop? Why were the fictional characters more sympathetic, or more detestable? How did the political theater play out in real life? More often than not, it's the reality that looks funny.

To launch our new club, Brian watches the budget debacle unfold on The West Wing Season Five in an episode called "Shutdown." Then, Brooke Gladstone, co-host and managing editor of WNYC's On the Media,  gives her take. You'll get a chance to weigh in as well. 


Brian Lehrer: Ah, fiction. The famous episode where Josiah "Jed" Bartlet walks rather than limos to the House Speaker's door during a government shutdown. The Million Secret Service Agents March. Well, I know people say that everything they know about politics they learned from The West Wing.

And I know the real and made up scenarios here are eerily similar - budget deadline, House Speaker reneging on a grand bargain agreement, the whole thing. But President Bartlet's aerobic gambit probably wouldn't work for President Obama. Here are three reasons why:

1. In the TV show, Fictional Speaker Haffley refuses to meet with the President Of The United States (why does The West Wing so love calling him POTUS?) and public opinion turns against Haffley after the snub. But the big sweep of public opinion now seems irrelevant to Real Life Speaker Boehner. He tried earnestly to make that grand bargain that would probably have had massive public support. But Boehner can't get his own caucus to vote for a compromise if it raises even one extra revenue dollar from even one billionaire by closing the tax loophole on his seventh corporate jet. And he can't even get a spending cuts-only bill that goes through the 2012 election because the Tea Party wants to have this debate again during the campaign, even if they win this round. (By the way, I like having big public debates on the central issues of our time during campaigns rather than papering them over until after. Isn't that what elections and election debates are for? Do we want big decisions being made when politicians are just elected and therefore least accountable?) Anyway...

2. In the TV show, the Fictional Public gets the impact of a government shutdown. The Real Life Public today does not understand that raising the debt ceiling just allows us to pay for debts already incurred. What they know is that the country is shoulder-deep in hock to China and it's time to stop. The math of how much pain would be incurred by going cold turkey on debt this week vs. going on a gradual Debt Watchers Diet is mostly lost on Mr. and Ms. American. There is a certain gut illogic to the idea of borrowing more money to pay back money we've already borrowed, like paying your Visa bill with your Mastercard, even if it actually makes sense in this case. This narrative competes mightily with Obama's attempt to frame his position as compromise and the GOP's as radical.

3. As we see in the clip, President Bartlet is a man of action who stands for something you can put your finger on. In real life, President Obama seems to be basing his re-election strategy on being Mr. Reasonable Slightly Left Slightly Right. Who'd believe the act?

By the way, Vanity Fair last week referred to this episode as from "the Aaron Sorkin-less dregs of WW season five." Yeah, but this was still good, tense fun. Josh Lyman's pluck makes you both smile and want to fight as he claws his way back from political exile imposed in previous episodes. And I love Bartlet's spontaneous detour to greet a group of tourists from Kansas ("Blue Jays, Jayhawks, whatever.")

Oh, and Brooke, wasn't the Fictional Press Corps a little credulous about Bartlet's walk to the Hill? Wouldn't a Real Life Press Corps mock it as a stunt, like Rick Lazio walking over to Hillary Clinton during their televised debate?

Brooke Gladstone: Brian,

Yup, the fictional press corps would certainly APPEAR to be credulous about Bartlet's March to the Capitol (so reminiscent of Gandhi's Salt March to the Sea) but no more than the actual press would have been. On the show, we were blissfully unaware of what the TV reporters were actually SAYING about the stunt, but if they were anything like their real-life counterparts, they were calling it "Political Kabuki" or a "Hail Mary Pass" or whatever the cliche of the prevailing narrative might be.

And even more than their West Wing versions, they would have stayed on the story non-stop - because that's what they do, whether they're reporting on looming, self-inflicted national catastrophe (as in this case) or Michael Jackson's funeral.

I totally agree with you that the TV situation doesn't much pertain to the Real World, because right now truth is very much stranger than fiction. On the West Wing, two ideologically opposed but ultimately rational political actors were engaged in a somewhat limited game of chicken, one played many times before (as was noted earlier in the episode.) The game we just lived through had no limits. It didn't feel like chicken. It felt like Russian Roulette.

Actually, the scene left me cold, though I am fond of the show overall. In fact, I felt worse than cold. I felt queasy. Maybe its because of what I do, week after week, year after year - which is to deconstruct manipulations like this. If Bartlett is so great - why didn't HE just invoke the 14th Amendment!!

Come on Brian, you gotta admit it, however spontaneous Bartlet's little stroll may have been, it WAS a stunt, intended to show that he didn't care how going up to the Hill might look to the the political pundits. He was above the fray (sound familiar?), he had a job to do and dammit he was gonna do it. "What's that you say, Josh? WALK to the Capitol?" (Knowing glance exchanged) "Well, okay then!"

Unquestionably, Bartlet has better timing, keener instincts, and apparently more backbone than Obama. On the other hand, Bartlet's not battling one group in one House so adamant that it has all but declared it's prepared to destroy the country in order to save it.

To be honest, this is not exactly what I felt like watching today, in the aftermath of what the nation has just been through, and will soon go through again. That's because this was an episode about image management, the soul and pitch of politics, and I'm sick of it. It's just another example of how The West Wing was too good to be true. Not just because of the solidity of Bartlett but because of the sobriety of his foes.

Brian Lehrer: Oh, yeah, Bartlet's walk was a stunt alright. And true, he had no wing of the opposing party actually saying the government shutdown was a good thing and should be made permanent. Yet somehow, with everyone so cynical and stuck in old arguments right now, the imagination behind the stunt looked like a ray of hope to me rather than just a game.

Remember what the 9/11 Commission identified as the most important failure that allowed the attacks to succeed - a failure of imagination. Real Life Government needs West Wing-style Imagination, maybe now more than ever.

Okay, Free Country readers, now it's your turn. Watch the clip and keep the conversation going about budget showdowns real and imagined, and whatever else it stirs up in you.