“You know you’re like 10 years behind, right?” said the bartender at Chifa on Friday as I breathlessly told my fiancee about the season one finale of The West Wing. You know, the one where white supremacists open fire on Josiah Bartlet’s presidential entourage because his daughter Peggy Olson is dating Gus from Psych (I presume we’re past the statute of spoiler limitations at this point). Like, I presume, many millions of people across the country, I’m devouring the new-to-Netflix series. Unlike most of those people, I didn’t watch it when it was on the first time. Don’t ask me why. My whole family was obsessed with it—they even raised money for MS research as the West Wing Walkers. And it’s not like I wasn’t also sorely in need of an alternate POTUS in the darkest recesses of George W. Bush’s reign. But I just didn’t watch it. I think I was in a can’t-be-bothered-to-be-tied-to-a-TV-series phase.
So here I am, regularly staying up late, watching just one more 45-minute episode, and then another before going to bed two hours too late every night.
I’m aware that there are people out there—several of whom I’m related to—who’ve parsed the hell out out of all seven seasons, while I’m just two episodes into season three (at press time, anyway). But what strikes me, even at this early stage, is how many lessons Jed Bartlet and co. learned in this series lauded for its veracity that today’s politicians still don’t get right.
Put a Lid on It: As Allison Janney’s ridiculous-then-remarkable press secretary C.J. Cregg learned pretty quickly (and as so many now-former Republican congressmen learned in November), putting the lid on is always preferable to saying too much, and sometimes a full lid is stragically superior to saying anything at all.
Smart People Are Smug: I love Rob Lowe’s Sam Seaborn and the Dick Morris homage when Seaborn has a fling with Lisa Edelstein’s call girl putting herself through law school Laurie. I also love the “oh shit” vibe that permeates the cast when half of them realize they’ve been covering up a potential fraud by not disclosing the prez’s secret multiple sclerosis. What knuckleheads like Morris and Bill Clinton and Eliot Spitzer never seem to get is that not only do the rules still apply, they’re stricter, more capricious and more ruthlessly meted when you’re in power.
Everyone’s Winging It: We all have that sneaking sense that lots of people we know are sort of faking it through their jobs, if not their lives too, via a combination of facts, experience, bullshit and luck. Though we’d wish it not to be so, the same shit’s going on at the White House. If The West Wing is to be believed, even the speechwriters for the most powerful person in the world are making last-minute changes, adding lines from multiple writers and getting copy in just under drop-deadline. It would certainly explain some of presidential utterances between 2000 and 2008, and some of the disappointments between 2009 and now.
Fifty Shades of “Okay”: Maybe it’s more of an Aaron Sorkin-ism than a real-life thing, but every West Wing character has their own way of saying “okay,” and it can mean anything from “yes” to “no” to “I understand” to “let’s move on” to “I see no other option than to accept this ridiculous situation/your ridiculous hypothesis,” and it all depends on who says it, when and how. (Toby Ziegler’s got the best “okay” on the show.) If during debate number two Mitt Romney had avoided getting very obviously baited into President Obama’s “act of terror” trap and just paused, dropped an “okay” and moved on to his next attack, we may have faced a very different fiscal cliff negotiation. (Honorable mention: The many meanings of “yeah.”)