The Bartlett Administration, cir. 1999-2000
In the early days of the pandemic, I started re-watching Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing (1999-2006), a much beloved drama chronicling the lives and intrigues big and small of President Jeb Bartlet’s eight years in office.
It’s dated, there’s no doubt.
The coats are boxy, the metaphors are heavy-handed, and the handling of LGBTQ issues is… of the time, shall we say?
But the characters are earnest, the president is intelligent, a Nobel prize winning economist, the dialogue is snappy, the bipartisanship is hard won, and at the end of the day literally every character wants to make the country a better place.
Wants to make the world a better place.
In those first weeks, as infections spiked and death tolls crawled skyward, as refrigerated trucks were parked outside hospital morgues and I learned to sew my own masks, slipping back to a place where the world was still complicated but the people running it were the most capable on earth, was nice.
It was hopeful.
Which is why, when the West Wing cast reunited in October for A West Wing Special to Benefit When We All Vote, a staged reading of season 3 episode 14, “Hartsfield Landing”, to help get out the vote, I was excited. Some of my favorite television characters would live again, exist in the beautiful minimalism that is a staged reading at its best.
And it was a good reading.
The staging was beautiful.
With little more than desks, doorways, and lighting, the White House was recreated and peopled by Josh and his harried assistant Donna, Sam deliberating over an antique chessboard, while President Bartlet deliberated moving aircraft carriers in response to military posturing from China. Press Secretary C.J. bought pizza and speech writer Toby cautiously mended metaphorical fences and, at the end of the day, things were fixed.
Or if not fixed, they weren’t made worse, maybe made a little better.
And it hurt.
It hurt watching these clever, earnest actors play clever earnest characters from over a decade ago, spouting lines written by one of the best scriptwriters alive—it was a dream. An idealized version of a White House that hasn’t existed for years now.
Maybe never existed.
The same way Pete Souza’s documentary The Way I See It (2020) hurt.
Souza, White House photographer for Presidents Ronald Regan and Barak Obama, offers an intimate look at the life of the most powerful man in the world. Through his lens we see what America has been, narrated by a man who obviously loves his country and has loved those he was hired to document.
It was beautiful, but bittersweet.
Watching it felt almost like an act of mourning. Mourning for innocence gone, for possibility lost, for a country that has broken open and exposed her weeping edges to the world.
A country that I want so badly to see fixed.
Or, at least not made worse.
There is hope.
Glorious, delicious Hope and Change with capital letters, ghosts from a campaign a decade and more gone.
Hilarious Hope in the form of a time warp.
Delightful Change in the words of a young poet.
Reason for optimism in 91 million ballots already cast.
This is the world we recreate.
Recreate through our greatest civic duty. In the words of another great Sorkin protagonist: American elections are the envy of the world.
Every four years we peacefully overthrow our government, we have the opportunity to make it new again.
To make it better.
Every four years we get to look at the chessboard and decide if we’re going to keep playing this set, or if we’re going to get a new match. We ask the experts, we listen to the arguments, we consult our own gut, and we call the play.
I made my choice a month ago, when I filled out my ballot and put it in a postbox with a stamp and a prayer.
A prayer for another peaceful overthrow.
For a chance to make it better.
If you like Jenni’s writing, she has a book! It’s about super heroes and college students and friendship and fighting and all sorts of fun stuff, you can check out the first chapter here, and purchase it below!