A Summer in The West Wing

A Summer Project

Binge watching of a TV series is an activity at which I am just not very good. I just cannot sit and watch hours of TV; even great TV. But I do love to watch well-written television in small portions.

When it originally aired, The West Wing was like that for me. The hour each week was seemingly over in the blink of an eye. I loved it. When my daughter and wife went on a trip to New York City in the early seasons of the show, they bought a blue logo mug for me at the NBC store. I treasured that West Wing mug and fixed it with Super Glue more than once over the years.

Somewhere in the fourth and fifth seasons of The West Wing, I fell away. Life took over and the writing seemed to change. Since the end of the series in 2006, I never went back to watch it.

A Flashlight Under the Sheets

This summer I decided it was time to check what I had watched and see what I had missed. Almost every night, huddled in my bed hidden under the blanket like a ten-year-old with a flashlight so as not to disturb my wife Nancy, I watched every episode of The West Wing on Netflix.

Some nights, the nights where episodes included the flashes of the press’s cameras, I failed at not disturbing Nancy. Since my wife is a very hard-working business owner and mother, she falls asleep in minutes. I learned to listen for her breathing to show she was sound asleep. It was then I hit the Netflix app on my iPhone and let the opening title slide and pounding military drums take me to The West Wing.

Why The West Wing Fits

The West Wing fed several of the parts that make me who I am.

In senior year of high school, I was voted class politician along with my female counterpart and often nemesis, Janet Peterson. I had been class president and held student council office and even went to student leadership camp in New Jersey (Have you ever seen Judge Andrew Napolitano on TV? He was my camp counselor.)

Leading up to senior year, my father had been a township committeeman and mayor of our New Jersey town. That was my first exposure to the political process and I also saw firsthand how government really worked.

Out of college, I went work at my local newspaper. Back then I did not realize my local paper was a rather large and nationally well-respected one. It was there I carved out a career and eventually became a publisher.

During my time as a newspaper publisher, Nancy and I dined with Senator John Glenn and had lunch with governors. I hosted meetings in my office for now Secretary of State John Kerry, Governor Mitt Romney, Senator John McCain and several other presidential hopefuls. New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson even called me on my cell phone as I cleaned out my garage one Saturday morning and asked for my newspaper’s presidential primary endorsement. It instead went to Barak Obama.

My most memorable meeting was held at the Salem, NH Boys and Girls Club. After watching Governor Romney at a town-hall-style rally, I was ushered upstairs along with my editors. After a few minutes of sitting and waiting, both Governor Romney and Senator McCain came in and sat down and asked us for our presidential endorsement. They got it.

All of these experiences lead me to why The West Wing was worth watching again and should be a part of your binge list.

Apathetic Citizenry

Without much coaxing, I can get on my soapbox that Americans have very little clue when it comes to how our government works. And, unfortunately, most people will not even begin to try to understand. I was lucky. I have had a front row seat for several levels of government.

Once, as a kid, my dad called and asked me to ride my bike over to town hall and bring him something he needed. I remember walking into the meeting where the town leaders, along with the police and fire chiefs, were discussing the town budget. I was invited to stick around and listen.

Decades later I was discussing Middle Eastern events with Senator John Kerry in my newspaper conference room. The disbelief is never far away. I am humbled by my experiences.

Martin Sheehan as President Bartlet

Martin Sheehan as President Bartlet

A Bumpy Start

Aaron Sorkin, the creator of The West Wing, had the original intent of focusing on the people who worked around the president. He wanted people to see government behind the scenes. He was focusing on Sam Seaborn, the Rob Lowe character, but Martin Sheehan’s President Bartlet quickly received feedback as a favorite. From there the series, famous for its “walk and talks” (see the spoof with a point below), had us travel in and around the Oval Office and throughout the executive branch of government.

The series had many hurdles to overcome. It often ran over budget, Sorkin was viewed as difficult to work with by the network, it was thought to be too Liberal, and it was not among the most popular shows in its first season. After winning nine Emmys for season one, season two hit new strides and it gained a larger audience.

The West Wing went on for a total of seven seasons ending with the election and inauguration of the first Latino president played by Jimmy Smitts. He defeated a senator in the election played by Alan Alda.

There were times I did not agree with the political opinion of the characters in the series. But that is true of everyday life. I don’t agree with everyone I meet, but the characters, like real people, believed in our nation’s Constitution and that was good enough for me.

The fictitious President Bartlett was portrayed as a Democrat, but could well have been a moderate for either party. In the end, it was not the political bent of the series that captured me; it was the process and the personal sacrifice the characters portrayed to serve the office of the President of the United States.

The cast of The West Wing

The cast of The West Wing

The World is a Mess

Former Secretary of State Madeline Albright recently stated, “To put it mildly, the world is a mess.”

Whether or not you like it, the United Stated of America is called upon to straighten out that mess. And since we cannot call upon TV’s President Jedediah Bartlet and his West Wing occupants to fix it, we need to depend on real people who are inspired to serve our government to do it.

My mug featuring The West Wing logo was beyond repair and I threw it out about the time I started my summer ritual. The irony is that I fell in love with this great TV series all over again.

If I were a high school teacher, I would assign my social studies and American History classes to binge view The West Wing. There are times we need to see things dramatically to understand the true meaning. I am pretty sure I am not the first one to realize that. That notion gave William Shakespeare a decent outlet.

If you have not watched The West Wing as an adult, I urge you to give it a shot. You will gain or maybe regain an interest in what drives the headlines domestically and on the international scene. Current events might take on new meaning. There are times something as simple as a TV show sparks societal change. And I am not referring to reality TV. Yuck.

Tomorrow – A Spoiler Alert

In the last scene, as Air Force One returns President and Mrs. Bartlett back to their home state after the new president’s inauguration, the former President is looking out the window. Mrs. Bartlett asks him what he is thinking about.

“Tomorrow,” is President Bartlett’s one word response.

Watching The West Wing today could inspire someone, perhaps you, to take part in the process tomorrow. At the very least, you can learn to walk and talk rapidly while you discuss current events. Then exercising your right to vote puts you squarely in the process.

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