‘West Wing’ lessons

Jan 23, 2019 at 9:50 am
The West Wing

For those too young to remember when television wasn’t streamed through an app, “The West Wing” was a political drama that aired on NBC, primarily during the George W. Bush years. It may sound silly, but the show was an invaluable source of encouragement and reassurance during what was, at the time, the worst presidential administration in American history: The country was terrorized into two wars and forfeited its privacy to the Patriot Act; high gas prices, tax cuts for the wealthy and deregulation devastated the middle class and poor; and health insurance companies profited off the sick.

My dad, U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth, the chairman of the U.S. House Committee on the Budget (and LEO’s founder), credits the show for helping get him through those dark times.

“During the George W. Bush years,” he told me, “when many of us questioned the president’s legitimacy and intellect, I adopted Jed Bartlet as my presidential model. I was never scared while I was watching the Bartlet White House.”

That’s why he’s re-watching it now (it is on Netflix).

So are others, and if they cannot get enough, they download the podcast “The West Wing Weekly,” which averages 1.3 million downloads a month, The Washington Post reported.

Certainly, President Donald Trump, U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell and Gov. Matt Bevin should spend time watching it. They would get a better sense about how government can and should be run, without allowing partisan differences to harm the nation.

For Bevin, he would learn about how to work with the legislative branch instead of against his own party, why respecting the judicial branch is important to our democracy and how to forge a relationship with a combative media.

For McConnell, he might find the reasons he needs to end the government shutdown — season five, episode eight, “The Shutdown,” is about negotiating in good faith, compromising and not just “winning” politically.

There’s even something for Trump: In the first season, episode 21, ”Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics,” President Bartlet recognizes, “It’s nice when we can do something for prostitutes once in a while.”

One lesson these three should glean is the importance of an intelligent, functioning staff and, in particular, one that encourages disagreement. The dysfunction and incompetence of the Trump White House is well documented, and his inability to listen to anyone but himself is obvious.

Bevin also seems to have an entire staff of sycophants (Chief of Staff Blake Brickman, we are looking at you). Bevin would benefit from having a chief of staff like Leo McGarry, or a press secretary like C.J. Cregg — at least someone who could provide structure for his Facebook videos, instead of letting him prattle and rant about Courier Journal reporter Tom Loftus or teachers... or whether he should shave off his beard.

McConnell probably needs “The West Wing” the most. He needs to be reminded what it means to be a leader. The majority leader of the U.S. Senate has devalued the institution, undermined its role in American democracy and undercut its credibility and authority. He is using it as an extension of a Republican White House.

As the “West Wing” vice president said in the “Shutdown” episode: “You know what they call a leader with no followers? Just a guy out taking a walk.”

This is another one of those moments in America, when we need reminders and reassurances that we will overcome tumultuous, chaotic times.

I never could have imagined a more daunting, embarrassing period than the George W. Bush era — when the Iraq war wasn’t enough and Iran and North Korea were next. But Trump quickly surmounted Bush levels of anxiety and confusion.

My dad put it this way: “‘The West Wing’ lets you appreciate a world where reality, rationality, competence and intelligence determine policy decisions. There is also a fundamental respect for the traditions and accepted protocols of American democracy. Then, the episode ends and you feel even worse, because that’s not the world we’re living in.”

He’s right, of course.

That’s not the world we’re living in today. But, thanks to “The West Wing,” we live in an imperfect world that knows how to properly say “Galileo Five.”