Sunday, February 26, 2012

Moral Ambiguity And Jed Bartlet's West Wing On NBC

The West Wing, which ran for 7 seasons on NBC (from the Fall of 1998 to the Spring of 2006) was ostensibly about the political idealism of a fictitious White House administration.  What made it such a compelling drama, however, wasn't the idealism.  Rather, it was idealism juxtaposed with moral ambiguity and the unintended consequences of veering from a path of absolute moral correctness that made the shows key plot lines so powerful and provocative for viewers.

A group of visionary and skilled political operatives came together in the fictitious world of The West Wing after discovering a kindred spirit and leader in the form of New Hampshire Governor Josiah (Jed) Bartlet (played by critically acclaimed movie actor Martin Sheen), spearheading a campaign that would bring Bartlet to the White House.  It would be a Presidential administration that would stand for truth, integrity and righteousness.  This administration wasn't just concerned with making the lives of all Americans better, it was concerned with all the citizens of the world.  Human rights, democracy, economic inequalities were global causes up for grabs.  Most of all, there would be no tolerance of political hypocrisy and the entire staff (key players being Chief Of Staff Leo McGary, Deputy Chief Of Staff Josh Lyman, Press Secretary CJ (Claudia Jean) Craig, Communications Director Toby Ziegler and Deputy Communications Director Sam Seaborn (later replaced by Will Baily) could always rest assured that President Bartlet had everybody's back:

A feel good set-up?  Yes...sort of.  This same group of do-gooders and supposed idealists would constantly remind us that the road to good intentions was paved with personal foibles and moral ambiguity.  Though the dramatic tension in the first season was probably driven more by the political miscalculations of the staff due primarily to hubris and a sense of infallibility, the tone changed shortly thereafter.  The balance of the series (from Season 2 to Season 5 especially), would derive its dramatic tension from a seemingly unending series of plots essentially asking the same question -- did the end justify the means. 

By the middle of the second season, it became clear that President Jed Bartlet had intentionally concealed his potentially life threatening case of Multiple Sclerosis from the electorate, all the while he was seeking the office of the U.S. Presidency (he even it kept it secret from his own campaign staff).   He knew quite well that by disclosing this grave medical condition, he would risk losing the election, so he made a calculated risk: by lying at the outset of the election, he could more than redeem himself with the good works his administration could complete.  But as we all know too well -- sometimes the cover up is worse than the crime.  It would almost cost him his Presidency (and if it wasn't a TV show, one has to believe it would have).   President Bartlet had to first deal with the deception he perpetrated against his own staff, beginning with the morally (self)righteous paragon of the group, Communications Director Toby Ziegler who was merciless and rageful in processing the deception.

While the staff was struck with compassion (though Ziegler's moral indignation would never quite subside) the disclosure of the MS came mid-term, just around the time Bartlet had to deal with reelection.  The general public as well as Congress (whose Democratic members need the President's coat tails for the purpose of re-election) were far less supportive.  In a deeply introspective moment (arguably one of the finest in the series' entire run), Bartlet was forced to confront his demons about running for re-election against the backdrop of being caught in a web of moral deception shortly before a press conference regarding his MS disclosure.  In a horrible twist of fate, the decision comes at a time when his assistant of the last 30 years is killed in a car accident, leaving him feeling close to utterly defeated and helpless.  It was at this moment that President Bartlett was forced to fully embrace the ramifications of his sins.

In the end, he did run for re-election.  But the political capital expended in dealing with scandal was incredibly damaging.  From that moment on, Bartlet lost the ability to take the moral high ground on most issues.  He was a liar -- it's hard to claim moral superiority when everybody knows that.

Seasons 3 focused on another moral dilemma of global proportions that called the high idealism of the Bartlet administration into question (and planted the seed for an almost unthinkable retribution for these moral transgressions that would play out late in Season 4 and Season 5).  Bartlet orders the assassination of Abdul Shareef, the Defense Minister of ficttious Middle Eastern country Qumar.  While Qumar was historically considered a "friendly" government to the U.S. (providing some practical military support and serving as a source of stability versus some of the more fundamentalist anti-Western Middle Eastern countries), it was also clearly a brutal dictatorship.  In particular, the Qumar government practiced repressive treatment for it's female citizens.  It was a country where adultery was punishable by stoning (but only for women), something that drove White House Press Secretary (and future Chief Of Staff) CJ Craig to both rage and tears. 

Upon the stark realization that Shareef was a driving force in suicide bombings and other atrocious terrorist activity and spotting an opportunity, at the urging of Chief of Staff/life-long confident Leo McGary, in violation of both International Law and traditional morality, Bartlet chooses to seize the moment and have Shareef assassinated.

We watch Bartlet and McGary wrestle with a conundrum for much of the 3rd season that encapsulates this key plot device (moral ambiguity).  A system of moral absolutes can only function in a world where all actors operate on a moral playing field.  Is it right to assassinate a terrorist responsible for the murder of hundreds of innocent civilians, and who seeks political instability in the hopes that it will spur even more anti-american violence?  While Shareef and all he stood for was repugnant, would a U.S. ordered assasination ever pass moral muster?  The answer isn't so simple when we consider that Shareef was an official in one of the few Mid East governments that was considered relatively progressive and was in fact considered a U.S. ally.  Furthermore, the assassination took place when Sharif was completely unarmed and in a completely vulnerable position in a plane over the Atlantic Ocean after having been lured to the U.S. under false pretenses.  Forgetting the potential fall out from moral outrage outside the White House, how could the Administration be complicit in such a tacitly immoral deed -- murder and hypocrisy.  There is just no way to spin it -- taking another man's life, no matter what the geopolitical context, is wrong.  

The aftermath of the decision demonstrated that there are no easy answers in these kinds of dilemmas and that ultimately, we reap what we sow.  First it lead to the retaliatory assassination of Ben Yosef, the Israeli Foreign Minister, (with the implication being "retribution" to the Israelis who, Qumar presumably believed were responsible).  From the outset, the Bartlet administration feared such improperly targeted retribution would be inevitable situation since to "clear" Israel, Bartlett would have to show he knew who the guilty party was and that was impossible since he would have implicated the Administration in the assassination.  This inevitability tormented Chief Of Staff Leo McGary who was responsible for U.S. ties with Israel and had a closer personal relationship with Foreign Minister Ben Yosef.

But that would pale in comparison to the ultimate payback -- the kidnapping of first daughter Zoey Bartlet, which essentially brought down the entire Bartlet government, at least temporarily when Presiden Bartlet elected to avail himself of the 25th Amendment, essentially resigning his presidency until Zoey was found.  Bartlet was forced to elevate the most powerful Republican politician in America, Speaker Of The House, Glenn Allen Walken, to the Presidency of the United States, since the Vice President's office was vacant with the prior resignation of former Vice President John Hoynes after a sex scandal and the administration's failure to name a replacement in time.

There were far less high profile examples of moral ambiguity co-existing with idealism as well (most effectively in the first 4 Seasons).  One of my favorites outside of those first 4 seasons occurred in Season 5, in the episode entitled Talking Points.  In it, Deputy Chief Of Staff Josh Lymon is unwittingly manipulated by Chief Of Staff Leo McGary and the President himself, to negotiate a trade agreement that he is unaware contains provisions that would place members of the CWA union in a very unfavorable position with respect to International trade protection (and thus job protection).  In order to further the Bartlett spearheaded trade agreement, the  administration has to break a promise to preserve U.S. jobs which essentially secured the Union's initial support for Bartlet during the primaries and may even have been responsible for Bartlet getting the nomination (since the CWA endorsement was a key factor in the previously faltering Bartlet campaign).  Josh is tormented by the process but his bosses seem to understand that sometimes, sacrifices must be made and that, in economic academic jargon, as President/Economics Phd Josiah Bartlet correctly termed, "creative destruction" must be allowed to occur.  When Josh explains that he understands the imperative of creative destruction, but doesn't understand how the Administration could so easily break a campaign promise to one the parties responsible for building early momentum for the campaign, Leo reminds Josh that "You campaign in poetry, you govern in prose."  At the end of the episode, Josh comes to terms with this.  He realizes that the moral failure of the Bartlet administration (and his own) wasn't in breaking the promise, but it was rather in making the promise in the first place to union:

Josh: "What I did wrong wasn't breaking my word". "It was making a promise I couldn't keep in the first place."

But really, was it wrong?  Without making the empty promise, the early momentum for the campaign might never have formed.  Without the early momentum, there would not have been a campaign later, and there never would have been a Bartlett administration.  Did the ends justify the means in any case?
I've often tried to get my arms around why Season's 5, 6 and 7 are often derided as being somewhat inferior to the first 4 seasons.  The most cited reason is simply that Aaron Sorkin departed the series after Season 4 at which time John Wells took over production.  Even with a powerhouse like John Wells at the helm, it was hard to match Sorkin's brilliance.  While the pace of the dialogue and the "importance" of the story lines did in fact lag it's predecessor seasons, I think the reason Seasons 5-7 were weaker is somewhat more ephemeral.  The real reason it lagged was that the stories didn't force the characters to battle their inner demons and deal with the moral ambiguity that permeated the first 4 seasons. 

In an eerie element of foreshadowing real events, the 6th and 7th Season arc followed the political rise (ultimately to the Presidency) of Josh Lymon's handpicked successor for President Josiah Bartlet, Congressman Matthew Santos.  With a total of 6 years in the House Of Representatives as his only real experience in the arena of National Politics, his rise seemed to uncannily mirror the future rise of President Barack Obama,.   While the development was interesting, there was no real moral ambiguity for the viewer to ponder here.  In fact, Santo's most attractive political quality (and his most dangerous to his opponents and to himself) seemed to be that in his eyes, the end can't be used as a justification for the mean.  Matt Santos always took the high road -- even if it meant he would lose.
The primary plot lines during the post Sorkin era focusing on the question of succession of President Bartlet were quite compelling.  There was a real sense of cliff hanging suspense in Season 6 with respect to the Democratic Nomination pitting Matthew Santos, VP Bob Russell and former VP John Hoynes in a 3 way race for much of the season with the crescendo occurring on night 2nd the Democratic Convention in the show's conclusion in one of the most memorable political speeches many TV watchers had ever seen, be it real or fictional.

There were attempts on some level to bring in conflicts over moral absolutes; Toby Ziegler leaks classified information regarding the existence of a secret military space shuttle in order to rescue the astronauts that are stranded at a malfunctioning space station, for example.  But the story lacked the element of an ethical choice that was too tough to call that so permeated the earlier seasons.  For Toby, it barely created an ethical dilemma.  He opposed the militarization of space and felt that the astronauts' lives were a priority.  The viewer felt little tension in his decision to break the law to achieve his goals.  While President Bartlet's moral dilemma to reveal the existence of the military shuttle and rescue the astronauts versus keeping sacrificing the astronauts to keep the vital national security program alive could have been a real tension builder. But John Wells chose to head it off at the pass having Toby divulge it before the debate became heated.

Additionally, unlike with other subjects moral ambiguity, the agent (Ziegler) was prepared to live with consequence.  Not so much that he would go to jail (which also was the case), but rather, that it was a final decision that would prevent him from continuing to serve in government and complete the Bartlett mission.  One could argue (and I think President Bartlett does in their final meeting in Oval Office when Bartlet refuses to accept Toby's resignation, telling him rather that he must fire Toby), that Toby's sense of moral superiority eliminated the real moral ambivalence.  For Toby, it was right to be wrong (or at least break the law), and on this, there was no real conflict. 

BARTLET: "I haven't had much time to absorb this news, so I'll apologize in advance if I express any half-formed thoughts. But the one thought that hits the hardest is that this was somehow inevitable; that you've always been heading for this sort of crash-and-burn. That self-righteous superiority; not that you were smarter than everyone; that you were purer, morally superior."
TOBY: "Due respect, sir, I don't think I'm morally superior to everyone."
BARTLET: "No, just to me."