Video Club: Are Secret Committees as Good as they Sound on The West Wing?

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Martin Sheen as President Josiah Bartlet and Richard Schiff as Communications Director Toby Ziegler on NBC's 'West Wing'

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 analysts 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.

In the second installment of our club, Brian debates with The Takeaway's John Hockenberry and Jay Newton-Small, TIME Magazine's Congressional correspondent, about a scene in season two of The West Wing, in an episode called "Ellie," in which a secret committee forms to tackle Social Security reform. Watch the clip, and post your take in the comments below. 


John Hockenberry is co-host of WNYC and PRI’s The Takeaway

Let's just agree at the outset that TV is more obsessed with TV than Washington is obsessed with TV.

Agreeing that’s the case then, the idea that faux Washington would so decry the predatory faux media that the White House would have to create a secret committee to deliver a faux compromise, is the “West Wing” equivalent of Agatha Christie's need for the "Butler to do it," in order for her mystery to be entertaining.

In this case the Secret Committee is the butler. A "secret conspiracy to commit democracy" always works better than the ugly boring public truth of how policy happens. In “The West Wing,” the secret committee is far from secret - it becomes the main stage for the episode. Cameras and lights capture the faux secrecy and deliver it to the faux public servants, who put on a good show of being faux fake in their public statements. If this feels like it’s getting a little “meta,” join the TV fans that are addicted to a weekly Sorkin buzz, the hangover from which is often a doozy.

Sadly, the purpose of secrecy in the real Washington is to divert authority and power, delay a decision, and provide an additional way for TV-obsessed real public servants to say no to issues that already are impervious to compromise. The real super (less-than-secret) committee is about the illusion of doing something, the moving of the goalpost, the double and triple overtime, the series spin-offs, the syndication deal. It is not “getting down to business.” And as plausible as the "get out of the spotlight" tactic seems in real Washington, compromise only happens when everyone has their fingerprints on a deal - not, as in the “West Wing” episode - where no one does.

This television show is predicated on the notion that all public servants can be lured into a deal if they can be distracted from the fixed fears and immutable dogmas of a hardened ignorant electorate. The West Wing is about Faux Washington and it's infinitely negotiable and seducible public dealmakers against the stupid, bullheaded faux voters, while today's real public narrative is more about the real electorate against the stupid, bullheaded Washington. In the 24/7 cliffhanger called real life, it is the voters who are in volatile play while real Washington is playing roles that TV cancelled a few seasons ago. Maybe real voters will do their own cancellations in 2012.

Jay Newton-Small is the Congressional Correspondent at TIME Magazine. 

Allow me to agree to disagree with my friend, John Hockenberry. As someone who's covered the Hill on and off for nearly a decade I've come to believe that television is part of the problem in Washington. I love the idea of CSPAN, or transparency in the halls of Congress, of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. But in practice, it has taken all real debate off of the floor, our of committees to behind closed doors.

Once upon a time there were bonafide debates in both chambers -- arguments the outcome of which weren't predetermined. Members actually swayed other members with their oratory. These days, all the speeches are canned, all the colloquies are scripted and the outcome of most votes are fixed.

Why? Because if a member shows even a little weakness on the floor the other members, the press and the public pounce. 

Barack Obama promised to do health care reform "in front of the CSPAN cameras." In early 2010, I asked him coming out of a closed door meeting with Senate Democrats where those CSPAN cameras were. "That wasn't a meeting, Jay," he scolded, "that was just a little pep talk."

The truth is, legislating is an ugly, ugly process. Health care reform shone the spotlight on that sausage maker with more wattage than ever before and the public was left disgusted by the horse trading and craven politicking. Just imagine if all of it had been on CSPAN. There's something to be said for being able to say something - propose something - and trust that you're not going to get taken out to the woodshed for it.

How do you negotiate when your every statement is a press release? In this age of hyper-partisanship where that trust is so very thin it's practically non-existent. And that is one of Washington's biggest problems.

Brian Lehrer hosts The Brian Lehrer Show

It's my luxury and burden to go last in this three act play. John and Jay have staked out all the good points and already disagreed with each other, so maybe all I can do is pick a side.

Or maybe not.

For me, both the scene itself and John and Jay's reactions to it show how people trying to do the right thing can get caught between competing values. Good vs. good. Which is more important, transparency or privacy? We tut tut at Wikileaks but are thrilled to be educated by its revelations.

The scene is written to make us root for privacy in Congressional deliberations, because the public can't handle the truth. But what's the difference between government privacy (good) and government secrecy (bad)? The line isn't always so clear.

Unlike the episode, John wants more people's fingerprints on political compromises, not fewer - less privacy, less secrecy. I agree. How could something as important as a Grand Bargain on the debt be done with none of the committee members ever getting into the details in public?

The 9/11 Commission, though not perfect, produced an authoritative report this way. The Democrats and Republicans on the commission voted unanimously for the report despite their differences. Then they all went out and sold it as the truth.

I realize it's harder with legislation. So Jay wants more insulation for lawmakers from the polarized media and interest groups. I agree with that too. What a tragedy it is if C-SPAN has turned out to chill real debate on the floor rather than display it for all Americans with basic cable to see.

What a shame that there is an all-righty channel on television today, and an all-lefty channel, but no all-indie channel to argue just as passionately for compromise, and for Congress to act like the grown-ups they are supppsed to be. I'm not sure why there isn't such a channel, since more Americans probably would root for the "grown up" than root for Sean Hannity or Al Sharpton. Advertisers take note.

The real life supercommittee must succeed or fail by Thanksgivimg to pass a compromise bill for a historic deficit reduction. Congress already took a step toward compromise by establishing the supercommittee with a bipartisan sword over its head. If the committee fails, automatic cuts will kick in designed to be onerous to both sides' constituents.

To Jay's point, I think that compromise was possible because Congress knew it would be buried by the news media, which was only interested in the size of the debt ceiling bill it came in, and the tax hike or no tax hike question. (The Dems caved. There was no new revenue.)

To John's point, the Occupy Wall Street movement sprung up after that compromise, and will hold the Democrats accountable for their votes on this like the Tea Party has already done to Republicans, precisely because they have the media's attention.

Is that polarizing? Yes. Would the supercommittee do a more grown up job without Hannity or Sharpton or any child of Citizens United breathing down their backs? Maybe. But I think The West Wing offered us a false choice. Supercommittees may deliberate in private, but their votes will be broadcast and blogged, their fingerprints tweeted and retweeted, whether we like it or not.

The committee needs to show some courage either way.