West Winging Away

By Rob Patterson

For once a week, as I've said here before, I was able to live in the America of my dreams: one with a man of intelligence, erudition, heart, soul and wit in the Oval Office (in great contrast to the person -- I almost blanche at saying "man" -- who is there now and seems to not even have one of those fine qualities that, to me, make a man a real man). And now it's gone.

It was high time for The West Wing to ride off into the sunset, but that still doesn't prevent me from feeling sad. The series jumped the shark at the end of Season Four when Zoey Bartlet was kidnapped by terrorists, yet even at its most silly and forced, it still had its fine moments (such as John Goodman's portrayal of a blustery yet still thoughtful right-wing Speaker of the House who took the top office when Jed Bartlet stepped aside during that crisis).

And the show did redeem itself in its last two seasons by bringing it all back home to the campaign trail where the West Wing gang was forged under fire. What I always found so appealing about the series was how, as I allude to above, it presented an alternative universe to the fools, bumblers, scoundrels and such, both elected and appointed, that seem to pervade our federal government. It was a place where honor and a high-minded sense of public service generally prevailed over the very human flaws of its characters. The West Wing renewed my faith in American democracy at a time when it seems to be almost fatally broken.

NBC aired the show's pilot prior to the final episode, and it was quite revealing to see the contrast between its nearly silly beginnings and the gravitas the show gained over time. And during its run, there are many West Wing favorite moments I can cite, like the one I mentioned just yesterday to my friend Molly. She's a very dear woman who is currently in Methodist divinity school and, as I like to say, one of the few genuine Christians I know in these times when countless people call themselves that, yet behave in a fashion that contradicts the words of Jesus in the Bible. Having my Christian leanings in these apostate times among the left, when Molly and I get together, we talk religion.

As we discussed the issue of homosexuality -- which is currently dividing the Episcopal Church, of which I am quite the lapsed member, among many other schisms in which it's a hot point -- I brought up the time that Jed Bartlet was talking with a right-wing Christian member of Congress, who insisted that the Bible says that "homosexuality is an abomination." Bartlet immediately countered by asking if he knew where that is in the Bible, and then cited the chapter and verse in Leviticus as well as a number of other ancient and bizarre pronouncements and proscriptions that we no longer observe in modern civilization.

Yes, I like the notion of having a President who just doesn't wave the Bible but actually has a scholarly grasp of it along with a deeply-held faith. And I can't think of too many other more inspiring and touching moments in my life than when, last August, while I was at Cindy Sheehan's Camp Casey in Crawford, Martin Sheen showed up to say the Catholic rosary with her for her son and all the other soldiers who have died in Iraq. Jed Bartlet would have given that mother's loss and pain the respect it deserved, in contrast to Bush's unfeeling arrogance when he first met her and in his callousness helped launch her antiwar crusade.

In its final two seasons, The West Wing redeemed itself nicely with both characters running for President. Matt Santos, wonderfully portrayed by Jimmy Smits, represents what America is becoming by being Hispanic. And it was even more resonant to have him married to an Anglo wife. At a time when a false panic is being stirred up over illegal immigration as yet another wedge issue and distraction from all our legislators should be attending to, Matt Santos was the burgeoning browning of America personified in all the best ways (and his proposals for public school education were the best policy I've heard yet on fixing the stupidity and ignorance machine that is American education that results in numbskulls like Bush getting elected).

And Arnie Vinick -- Alan Alda masterfully playing against type -- represented what a good Republican should be, so well, in fact, that I wanted him to win (and I'm as yellow dog of a Dem as there is in this nation). My dream was that Vinick would take the White House and the show would continue or spin off with an even more powerful alternative President (to Bush, of course) than Bartlet.

No matter. Even though the last season had its sappy and off-tempo moments -- and had to deal with the death of John Spencer/Leo McGarry, and did so as best the show could -- the final episode hit the right heartwarming and touching notes for those of us who loved the series at its best (a bipartisan cabinet! What a concept!). The West Wing wrapped up with Bartlet legacy secure. And that's more than we will ever be able to say about the surreal if not almost absurdist -- if it weren't so tragic and scary -- of the "reality show" that is the Bush West Wing.

Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email orca@io.com.

From The Progressive Populist, June 15, 2006

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