The West Wing

When the West Wing was on network television, I tried to watch it and couldn’t, not for more than ten minutes at a stretch.  After a hiatus of more than a few years, I tried again, this time through Netflix… and had exactly the same inability to watch for any length of time, despite seeing sections of episode after episode.  After my initial reaction, I didn’t analyze why I felt the way I did, but the second time around, I did, because my wife pointed out that the acting was good, the dialogue crisp and often moving and  ironically cynical and humorous.  From my own time in national politics in Washington, D.C., I also knew that the majority, if not virtually all of the scenarios – the ones I saw anyway – were definitely realistic and representative.  So… why didn’t I like it?

Part of the answer, I know, was because it was too realistic in some ways, and called up too many painful memories… but there was more, and it took me a while to figure out what that happened to be.  The fact is… West Wing still isn’t realistic. Oh… the situations are difficult and realistic, and the series often captures, from what little I’ve seen, the infighting, the maneuvering, and even the absurdity of politics, but what the series doesn’t capture, not nearly enough, is the absolute pettiness and griminess of national politics behind the high-sounding rhetoric and superficial glamor. Being a political staffer – and this is something I know all too well from years in such positions – is anything but glamorous.  It is demanding, grinding, and usually thankless work that consumes every waking moment.  There are very good reasons why most political staffers are young, and why most of those who are not have strained marriages, if not multiple ones, or spouses who take on what amount to additional and very demanding support duties. 

The stress is endless and unremitting, and nothing you can do is ever enough. There is never enough time to do what needs to be done.  Your worst enemies are often theoretically your allies in your own party, not to mention the ambitious subordinates and superiors in the political infrastructure, and most egos of elected politicians or cabinet secretaries dwarf Mount Everest.  And no television show can truly capture more than a tiny fraction of that… and perhaps it’s just as well that it can’t.

Once upon a time, a consultant with whom I worked and I co-authored a book [The Green Progression] a near-future SF novel set in Washington, D.C., with a political/environmental theme and a plot that was part-mystery, part-thriller. The book got good reviews… and was one of the worst-selling books my publisher put out in the 1990s, but I’d like to think that it did a decent job of capturing some of what the West Wing, at least to my way of thinking, does not.  But that may well be one of the reasons for our book’s lack of popularity. It’s obviously no longer in print and not available as an ebook, and that may be for the best.

As the adage attributed to both Bismarck and Churchill goes, people who love law and sausage should not observe either being made.  And from what I’ve seen, most people really don’t want to know, at least not in realistic detail. And that, too, is a bit strange, when you consider the proliferation of grimy sex and graphic violence in all areas of visual media.

8 thoughts on “The West Wing”

  1. Tim says:

    I have not heard of West Wing, but in the UK there was a seminal TV series called House of Cards, which reflected the in-fighting within UK politics. I have been continually encouraged to see this by a friend (who is active in politics) but each attempt to view it only vividly brings alive the equivalent politics in the corporate world.

    No thanks – not in my spare time!.

  2. I’ve actually seen parts of the original House of Cards, as well as a few parts of the first season of the U.S. version. The British version is better, because much of what happens in the British version couldn’t really be translated into American politics. But for the record, while either version of House of Cards does depict the nastiness better than the West Wing, they suffer from the same shortcomings, and I couldn’t watch them all the way through either. It might just be endemic to that kind of show.

  3. Robert Gillette says:

    As a long-term Fed. I hope that someday “The Green Progression” becomes available. I’ve loved the glimpses of government that I’ve seen in your other books.

  4. Corwin says:

    Perhaps you should watch ‘Yes Minister/Yes Prime Minister’ instead. While also quite accurate in many ways, they are MUCH more watchable. 🙂

  5. Jim says:

    I know exactly what you mean about West Wing. Excellent acting, dialogue humor, etc. The whole time you watch it though, you keep thinking about how great it would be if the President and his staff were like those people. The real ones, while undoubtedly hard working and intelligent are meaner than rabid foxes. I can watch the show by pretending it is all happening in an alternate (more ethical) reality 🙂

    I am a Forensic Scientist and can’t sit through more than 15 minutes of any CSI show. I am sure it is the same for Doctors and Lawyers when shows “portraying” their fields are aired.

  6. Wine Guy says:

    Watching ER and Grey’s Anatomy are physically painful. If that much romance actually happened in the hospital, there wouldn’t be time for anything else. Watching the various doctors’ talk shows are even worse, because simplifying some of the medical issues for general public consumption leaves lay-people believing that they know things… and completely ignore the underlying complexities.

    Anyway, I read the Green Progression. It would not surprise me one little bit if some of the current discord within and among the branches of government are fostered by our enemies and so-called allies. Especially since we KNOW the Chinese have done such in the past.

  7. Brian says:

    I quit watching Network prime time TV more than 20 years ago. Since then, friends have recommended programming and I have tried to watch it. I can’t last beyond the first commercial break before looking for something else to do. My problem with the sit-coms, dramas and so-called reality TV is that it doesn’t engage my imagination enough to keep my attention. Such passivity within and without equals boredom.

    By simple trial and error over the years I have found that documentaries (which can be a starting point to learn more of an interesting topic), sports (the ultimate reality TV), reading, music (audio CDs and/or concert DVD’s), and the rare TV series (sci-fi, fantasy, or historical in nature) activate my imagination and thought processes. In this way I’m entertained.

    I’m still discovering or rediscovering things. Yesterday I watch America’s Cup Racing. I haven’t watched this event since Ted Turner competed. I found it fascinating at how the competitors were able to tack into the wind with their catamarans. I think I’ll tune in to watch the remainder of the event.

  8. Thomas says:

    A couple years ago, in an attempt to read ALL of your books, I purchased a copy of The Green Progression from a used book seller. I must tell you that it is now one of my favorite books that you have written. It is fascinating, realistic and of course, as always, thought-provoking. And I am not surprised at all that it did not sell well. I think that the thought that it could be realistic makes too many uncomfortable to think that it could mirror reality.

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