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Jed Bartlet’s name isn’t on Tuesday’s ballot, and Aaron Sorkin knows why. Despite media characterizations of Decision 2000 as a personality contest, tomorrow’s presidential election asks a serious question about the continuity of American government — an institution now held in such contempt that the only requisite for its stewardship is the candidate’s ability to demonstrate that he is less appallingly dense than we had been led to believe. Yet the straight-faced marketing of an intellectually or experientially challenged White House hopeful is simply the coup de grace in the legal battle that defines our era, the fight for federalism: An executive goof won’t aspire to much, after all, and we’re relieved that he won’t. Of course, the chief casualties of a strategy that puts a featherweight at the head of the federal government are our expectations for America. Sorkin’s countermaneuver is “The West Wing.” By now, everyone with a television knows that Sorkin’s series has resurrected the political narrative, a Hollywood genre that reconciles two countervailing concerns, each of which is essential to American democracy: personal leadership, which ensures energetic and decisive action, and politics, which guarantees that no executive will ever lead too much. Sorkin understands that today that balance is critically out of whack. “The West Wing” is his frantic, funny attempt to reawaken the American imagination, stirring us to action against a politics that threatens everything Sorkin believes America was intended to be. Sorkin’s series — focusing on the daily lives of senior aides to President Josiah ‘Jed’ Bartlet (Martin Sheen) — simply returns the ensemble drama to its original purpose: the engagement of diverse citizens, each representing an essential component of the American character, in an enterprise that redeems the nation. Like the World War II films where Bronx cabbies and Texas cowpunchers worked together to defeat fascism, Sorkin combines a dozen ages and orientations — the idealist and the pragmatist, the administrator and the wordsmith, the disappointed Boomer and the dependable senior — into a microcosm of America at the millennium. Mobilizing them are the kind of energetic, intelligent young men who have drawn fire in progressive administrations from Campobello to Camelot. “They’ll bait you. They’ll try to make you say something arrogant,” Deputy Chief of Staff Joshua ‘Josh’ Lyman (Bradley Whitford) is warned. “Oh, I don’t have to be baited to do that,” Lyman cheerfully responds. Sorkin’s drama has struck a nerve with conservative watchdogs who have criticized its “liberal bias,” but that tired malediction doesn’t credit how dangerous Sorkin really is to the people who profit from contempt for federal leadership. Sorkin recognizes that abhorrence of national government is a product of the most comprehensive marketing campaign in modern political history — a 20-year pitch that has presented government as ineffective, regulation as unnecessary, and taxation as unjustifiable. So Sorkin ensures that his plotlines expose the tricks that have allowed political tactics to pass as truth. Sorkin knows that the first priority of anti-government pols is the neutralization of the president and the discrediting of the federal authority he embodies. Conservative theorists market their objective as part of the checks and balances fundamental to American government. But the Framers’ formula presupposed that Congress and the White House would have equal power to curb the other’s misadventures, not that Capitol Hill maneuvers would forestall all presidential action. Not surprisingly, “The West Wing” outs a reactionary agenda that has less to do with the Constitution than with total containment of the executive branch: parliamentary extortion (“[Senators] Broderick and Eaton have attached a rider to the banking bill: They want to strip-mine Montana,” a Bartlet staffer reports); blackmail (“Embarrass us on this and we will give it back to you tenfold. Every piece of legislation the White House wants off the table will make a sudden appearance,” the majority leader’s aide threatens); and government lockdowns — if not literal ones, then sensationalized investigations that halt regular business. (“It doesn’t matter what a hearing turns up. It’s a hearing,” an opposition congressman warns.) Sorkin reveals a system so dominated by progress-stopping maneuvers that even insiders no longer recognize it as strategy: “Surely our first goal has to be to work with Congress,” Bartlet’s politically circumscribed vice president (Tim Matheson) offers. But the president corrects him, “Don’t you think our first goal should be finding a way to better serve the American people?” Sorkin’s series exposes some of the Beltway’s subtler ironies. Notably, the perception that national government is ineffective, exorbitant and oppressive is most often reinforced by conservatism’s sacred cows: a futile War on Drugs that targets non-whites; a military policy that permits the harassment of good soldiers while leeching tax dollars for superfluous weapons; a national security strategy that focuses on high-end gadgetry when our greatest danger lies in underfunded research and a deteriorating infrastructure. Frequently, superficial patriotism diverts staffers from the nation’s more substantive needs: “There is a population in this country that seems to focus a great deal of time and energy on this conversation — so much so that I am moved to ask: Is there an epidemic of flag-burning going on that I am unaware of?” Bartlet demands. Sadly, the opponents of national government have been most successful in that they have eradicated our power to imagine, a mortal wound evident in a recent report that one voter found Vice President Gore’s hopes for an urban school “grandiose.” But aren’t ambitions of great scope and intent exactly what we want from national government? “Education is everything. We don’t need little changes, we need gigantic, monumental changes,” argues “The West Wing’s” Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe. Then he plants the radical notion of an education budget that’s as large as that of the defense department. Today our expectations are so stunted that we see federal aspirations of any kind as inappropriate. But Sorkin understands that the Founders lived large; that Jefferson’s “more perfect union” envisioned a consolidated effort to improve the lives of everyone; that the Founders hoped to a degree that neo-cons and originalist thinkers cannot entirely recharacterize. “The seal was meant to be unfinished because this country was meant to be unfinished,” a Bartlet appointee says, looking at the back of a one-dollar bill. “We’re meant to keep doing better.” In Sorkin’s series, anti-government strategists at last face challenge on their own turf. Until now, they have prevailed, hard-selling their vision of federal action to a TV Nation: to parents whose personal experiences don’t entail the rotten meat and eroded farm lands and shuttered banks of pre-New Deal America; to students whose historical perspectives don’t include some of state action’s more salient events — governors closing the public schools to exclude black students, local lawmakers turning a blind eye to strip-mining and deforestation, state prosecutors imprisoning doctors who perform abortions — to neo-federalists who don’t realize that the “laboratories” of the states have so often produced monstrosity — or that the most Frankensteinian of these workshops is modern Texas. Now television is fighting back. Heeding the polls, Bill Clinton told the electorate, “The age of big government is over.” Yet Bartlet’s staff won’t concede the war to the revisionists, “We have to say what we feel: that government, no matter what its failures in the past, can be a place where people come together and where no one gets left behind. An instrument for good.” And Bartlet — wise and whimsical, generous and shrewd, the “greatest mind of his generation” — agrees. “What will be the next thing that challenges us, that makes us work harder and go further?” he asks. “When smallpox was eradicated, it was considered the single greatest humanitarian achievement of this century. Surely we can do it again.” Sorkin’s critics have derided Bartlet’s eloquence as contemporary Capra-corn, an updating of the sentimentality found in Frank Capra’s films. But Capra could never relinquish his abomination of the New Deal, and in his stories’ inevitable confrontations between democracy and capitalism, he ignored national government. The result was that Capra’s happy endings depended on a miracle — a love affair or a deathbed conversion or an angel that saves Capra’s common man from the corporate culture bent on using and discarding him. Yet, in truth, it is only strong national leadership that checks the powerful — the oil companies, the insurance enterprises, the financial empires that have enough money to evade or erase state intervention — and permits democracy to survive. Invariably, the discrediting of national government is sponsored by those who benefit most when government does least. Sorkin’s America doesn’t depend on miracles; it depends on us — on all of us. Indeed, for all the conservative criticism it has stirred, “The West Wing’s” prayer for inspired national leadership isn’t tied to party. True, Bartlet’s administration advocates strict gun control, sweeping election reform, and Supreme Court appointees who’ve been subjected to the laws they interpret. But so do the majority of people living in this country. And, like Bartlet, most of us want to give our children a better America than we inherited. But we’ve forgotten how even to aspire to that. As viewers who watched last season know, Bartlet and his staff eventually decide to fight the strategists who have disparaged federal action; to renounce political survival as the primer of their administration; to reclaim their responsibility as direct representatives of each of us; to turn national government toward aggressive action on behalf of the American people. Sorkin ends the episode with the aides’ individual commitments to large goals, affirmations that we’ll want to remember in the days to come: “I serve at the pleasure of the president.” And the president serves at ours. Terry Diggs is a San Francisco appellate attorney who teaches courses on law and film at Hastings College of the Law and Golden Gate University School of Law. Her e-mail address is [email protected]

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