Wednesday, June 25, 2008
Where's The West Wing?
Can you spell E-T-H-A-N-O-L?DID PRESIDENT BARTLET DIE OR SOMETHING? I'm not claiming a conspiracy here. I just think it's interesting and suggestive. With the Democrat Party in the clear ascendancy (sporting a 20 point lead in voter affiliation), you'd think the cable channels would be glutted with reruns of The West Wing, just to remind us all how marvelous it is to have a brilliantly intellectual liberal in the White House. But where is it? Nowhere. TVGuide.com couldn't find a listing for its being shown at all.
I wondered for a bit if it had to do with the estrogen-soaked final season, which seemed to be preparing us for a Hillary presidency that the elite media libs suddenly stopped wanting sometime last year. On the other hand, that season also featured an attractive young non-white male coming out of nowhere to steal the Democrat presidential nomination, as well as an unexpectedly centrist Republican candidate running against him; these were really quite good guesses. So what gives?
My theory is that forward-thinking liberals in the various network programming departments are seeing some things in The West Wing that they don't want to remind the voters about right now. Maybe later, but not now. Let's not forget that the Democrat Party subtly reconfigures its message and image at regular intervals, and while their fundamental conviction that bigger government is the answer to all questions remains a constant, the specifics of their PR strategies at any given time vary considerably. A party that's betting all the chips on infatuating the electorate with a "rock star" candidate probably doesn't want to create any thought-provoking contrasts between Jed Bartlet and Barack Obama.
Bartlet was, accidentally or not, an express opposite of George W. Bush: a Ph.D. and former college professor from an historic New England family, a learned Catholic, a dextrous participant in the infighting between the executive branch and Capitol Hill, and perhaps most importantly, a near-encyclopedic policy wonk. In the context of this election, ironically, comparing Obama to Bartlet makes Obama seem more like, uh, Bush. Think about it for a minute before you howl in outrage.
Take away the differences in pure personality and political constituencies, and you'll start to see that the Obama campaign bears a strong resemblance to Bush's 2000 campaign. Time for a change from eight years of a president who inspired bitter, destructive partisanship. Tiime for a president who knows how to work with both sides of the aisle. Time for an outsider who isn't tainted by a lifetime of grubby inside-the-beltway wheeling and dealing. Yes, the experience factor is wanting, but at this particular moment in time, less is more, because we have seen for years now that experience is more like corruption than wisdom. Trust my good intentions. No need for lots of specifics. Much better to stick to glossy generalities that give voters real hope for a desperately needed change in tone. In many ways, the track records of the campaigns are also similar. A near constant stream of gaffes, large and small, which betray a layer of disturbing ignorance beneath the generalities that Jed Bartlet would have exposed with witheringly sarcastic precision.
Indeed, the whole focus of The West Wing show seemed to be on exactly the kinds of process issues that encourage a view of the presidency as a skill position rather than as a font of feel-good rhetoric. The president must have a grasp of details, a thorough understanding of the complex interdependent organizational structures inside, yes, the beltway, and a profound understanding of history to keep him anchored against the winds of political pressure and public opinion. It's probably the case that not too many Americans know Obama's least favorite, and least studied, subject in school was history, but they will come to experience the inevitable effects of that hole in his education. His many blunders in the state primaries are a direct consequence of the fact that he just doesn't know much about the states, academically as well as personally. And Jed Bartlet was an economist, fond of lecturing on the subject. He would have been particularly scornful of Obama's fuzzy grasp of issues such as the capital gains tax.
And there's also a ticking bomb inside The West Wing that is very specific and relevant to a huge chunk of 2008 campaign rhetoric and its, well, lies on all sides. The bomb is addressed directly but incompletely here:
West Wing's Ethanol Problem
The West Wing is a smart television program, written by smart people with access to an enormous amount of expertise. Part of the show's appeal is its willingness to present both sides, even with highly controversial issues like the morality and efficacy of the death penalty or political assassinations. When it comes to ethanol, however, The West Wing's writers apparently believe there is only one side and it is exceedingly negative.
This was demonstrated a number of times in the show's early years, when Aaron Sorkin was in charge. In the first season, Vice President John Hoynes (Tim Matheson) was asked to break a tie vote in the Senate in favor of extending the ethanol tax incentive. He balked, since he had vigorously opposed that incentive when he was in the Senate. At the show's conclusion, President Bartlet (Martin Sheen) gives Hoynes permission to kill the incentive, and confesses, "You and I agree on ethanol, but you were the only one to say it."
The Jan. 26 episode, "King Corn" raised ethanol trashing to an entirely new level. In this episode, one of the presidential candidates, liberals as well as conservatives, and Democrats as well as Republicans, strongly object to ethanol, although in the end all but one ends up "pandering" to Iowa's caucus voters by endorsing the fuel.
The environmental site in which the above appears is pro-ethanol -- as are both presidential candidates in 2008 -- and strongly objects to the "King Corn" episode, which is summarized at a West Wing fansite with more samples of dialogue:
...Josh and Santos go to Iowa... The next morning each has a 5:45 wake up call and each immediately turns on the TV to see the same news story, etc... Each of three candidates that day (we follow Vinick through the same kinds of things after he has a 5:45 wake up call as well) deals with ethanol and what to tell the Iowa Corn Grower's Expo about this product as each addresses the group at different times this day. Even Russell, whose speech is first, tells Will,
"It takes more oil to transport it and fertilize it than we save using it"
"Sir, you're not considering changing the speech?"
"...Don't worry, I'm not suicidal. I'm going to take the pledge."
The environmental site is absolutely correct about The West Wing's writers. Ethanol is something of a running joke in the series, a kind of all-encompassing symbol of the lies politicians on both sides of the aisle are willing to tell for votes. With the Hoynes vote against ethanol mentioned above occurring in the first season of the show and the "King Corn" blasphemy in the last season, that's seven years of writer antipathy to a linchpin of the "energy independence" and "decarbonization" policies of both parties today. I haven't seen every episode by any means, but my memory tells me that ethanol comes up more often in West Wing conversations than any episode guide will reference.
The fact that ethanol is a symbolic litmus test of political integrity in West Wing Land may very well keep the show off the air for a long time to come. Maybe forever. Because ethanol is even worse than a litmus test. It's also a highly visible thread that if tugged on enough could lead to a complete unraveling of everyone's political plans for dealing with energy issues and so-called climate change issues. Biofuel mandates represent the first very large-scale attempt to address both sets of issues by immediate government intervention in markets. If the first such attempt should unleash a tidal wave of unintended negative consequences, the twin identity of ethanol as a marker of political dishonesty and as a headline for misguided government attempts to manage the natural forces of the planet could prove the undoing of a whole generation of politicians, in both parties.
Think I'm overstating the case? Are you sure? Then take the time to watch ALL of this C-span video of a speech by Robert Bryce, author of "Gusher of Lies: The Dangerous Delusions of Energy Independence." Yes, it's an American Enterprise Institute speech, but as Bryce proudly proclaims at the beginning of his remarks, his political roots are as a liberal and even a left-winger. (He even begins with a set of Bush jokes.) Actually studying the energy industry in depth, however, which has become his lifetime avocation, forced him to accept that the laws of thermodynamics did not conform to his political preferences. His presentation is stuffed with facts even political junkies know little of, and what political content he offers arises directly from those facts, not from his advocacy of any politician or party. How can we be sure of that? Because he can prove that they're all lying to us. (The Flash Player works well once you figure out the clunky controls, and there is a full-screen option as well.) As further incentive, I'll dangle the news that he proposes a sensible and dramatically improved solution for the 21st century with respect to meeting fuel needs and minimizing carbon output without crashing the global economy.
To end on a less serious note, those who have been missing The West Wing might enjoy the following all-purpose episode produced by Mad TV.
Well, I enjoyed it anyway.