Let Bartlet Be Bartlet
If historians don’t someday call the 2016 election campaign the nonsense versus nuance one, then I will gladly coin the phrase as that’s how I will refer to it, #NonsensevNuance. This will forever be so for me following last week’s disastrous Commander-in-Chief Forum as interviewer Matt Lauer was deservedly criticized, in my opinion, for seeking and obtaining sound bites from our two party system finalists in a half hour each format, rather than obtain and allow for nuance while discussing some of the most important parts of the job of the Commander-in-Chief.
This significant forum opportunity which was both needed and excellent in concept suffered from poor preparation and execution, while doing a disservice to all involved including the American people voting this November. Following this televised event, and the continued ridiculous Reality TV style election cycle that televised media has provided for us, I got to thinking about sound bites as I did again this weekend following the story and accompanying hashtag #basketofdeplorables concerning Hillary Clinton’s remarks about “The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic—you name it” who happen to support businessman and Reality TV personality Donald Trump for president. So, this weekend got me thinking about The West Wing, the television one at if not the real one.
During season three of The West Wing, the reelection campaign of the president is a major storyline. In “The U.S. Poet Laureate” President Josiah Bartlet, played by Martin Sheen, is caught making an alleged gaffe while doing a series of TV flash interviews from inside The White House. A television reporter lingers on camera after the formal interview to bait Bartlet regarding an opponent, as it’s implied the nine interviewers before her tried as well. Previous interviewers failed and President Bartlet said nothing, but while speaking to a TV network in Philadelphia President Bartlet said the following when the interview was over, but with the camera light still showing green (i.e. he was hot and the station had him on b-roll):
“I don’t know Leslie. I think we might be talking about a .22 caliber mind in a .357 magnum world.” President Bartlet
Throughout the ensuing episode the viewer comes to learn that the campaign of Bartlet’s opponent keeps the story alive in hopes of embarrassing the president or getting him to apologize for the remark alluding to his opponent’s lack of intelligence. Instead, the opponent’s campaign persists in drawing attention to that very substance of the comment itself, that the opponent is deemed not to be intelligent enough to be president, but easily digestible by the American public because of his personality.
By the end of the episode we learn in a conversation with Press Secretary C.J. Craig (Allison Janney) that President Bartlet’s intention all along was to create the sound bite because he knew the campaign and the press would keep the sound bite and story alive and thus without realizing it forcing the coverage to be about the substance, or the nuance required in being the president.
BARTLET: Didn’t turn out too bad.
C.J.: No sir, it didn’t turn out too bad at all. In fact, the whole country’s talking about whether Ritchie’s smart enough to be President. And you didn’t take hit, ’cause it was an accident. You know, it occurs to me that even your choice of language was interesting.”A .22 caliber mind, in a .357 magnum world.” That’s unusual for you, a gun metaphor…Toby mentioned to me that when each interview was over, all the interviewers wanted to talk to you about was Ritchie, and you took a pass each time. Until Philadelphia…Mr. President, is it possible you saw that the green light was on?
President Bartlet used nonsense to get to nuance and refocus the conversation on the substance of the individuals rather than the sound bites that make up a news cycle. That episode debuted in 2002. Fourteen years later our news cycles are even more immediate and quite often dictated by the inane in the hopes for better ratings than an opponent over better news for our citizens.
This political strategy of turning directly into the pitch about President Bartlet’s intelligence as his major asset ultimately derives from a conversation two episodes earlier that provides one of the series’ best exchanges in the seven season run of the show, one between President Bartlet and Communications Director Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff).
Toby: You’re a good father, you don’t have to act like it. You’re the President, you don’t have to act like it. You’re a good man, you don’t have to act like it. You’re not just folks, you’re not plain-spoken…Do not – do not – do not act like it!
President Bartlet: I don’t want to be killed.
Toby: Then make this election about smart, and not…Make it about engaged, and not. Qualified, and not. Make it about a heavyweight. You’re a heavyweight…
The two discuss what the campaign should be about, smart, engaged, and qualified, not simply what the voters are fed that it should be about. And although The West Wing was a fictional political world that had not yet experienced the juggernaut of Reality TV, as the first episode of Survivor had arrived on American televisions in 2000, this exchange between Toby and President Bartlet regarding how campaigns should be about substance over sound bites is alive and not well today. The West Wing (1999-2006) was and will remain brilliant television because it mirrored politics and The White House then, now, and will again tomorrow, which is what makes it relevant, a classic, and significant.
Let Clinton Be Clinton
I return to this moment in television history as a fan of The West Wing, but also of our country’s goodness, and the people that create and share that goodness worldwide. I also do so not as a Democrat, but an ordinary voting citizen concerned with nuance, not nonsense, and I believe this fictional TV moment in a Reality TV campaign possesses great informative value on where we are today.
I have to believe that someone or more than one someone in the Clinton campaign, or Secretary Clinton herself, has had to make a calculated political strategy that this election is different. So, previous political strategy may not work the same way in 2016, although that depends on who is talking and which candidate they are talking about as to when the old rules apply or the new ones. It’s usually an accepted rule to not disrespect the voters, your own or others, which Secretary Clinton is being brought to task for this weekend by some and being praised for by others. Yet, her opponent in Mr. Trump arguably doesn’t respect a whole lot of American voters or people from other countries and has communicated as such from day one of his campaign, but these points are for journalists to report more upon and they should continue to do so.
Deplorable: Deserving strong condemnation; shockingly bad in quality.
Nuance: A subtle difference in or shade of meaning, expression, or sound; to give nuance to.
Nonsense: Spoken or written words that have no meaning or make no sense; foolish or unacceptable behavior.
Considering this televised West Wing moment, there is honestly a part of me that even wants to believe that the sound bite from a woman usually very particular in crafting what words she uses (both fans and haters alike would usually even agree on this) was made strategically to get voters to consider the actual substance over the sound bite between now and the election. Maybe Hillary Clinton took a page out of the Josiah Bartlet playbook. Yes, Secretary Clinton has since clarified her remarks, or “regrets” her generalization of “half” of Mr. Trump’s voters, although she did use the words “grossly generalistic” in her initial remarks anyway. However, let’s also remember that she apologized for the percentage used, “half,” the sound bite, not the substance.
She almost immediately had another opportunity to revisit her remarks and I’m sure she’ll have more. I cannot help but wonder if that’s not what she wants is to take back the microphone from the loudest person in the room. She may want to remind her opponent that whether liked or not, she is smart, engaged, qualified, and that she’s the political heavyweight and Mr. Trump is simply dead weight on an election and on a political system where both Democrat and Republican elected officials in different ways allowed this Reality TV campaign to be possible. Yes, the “news,” or entertainment media obsessed with sound bites over policy and nuance has surely helped that, as has our cultural obsession with Reality TV. For without how our media works now and how our viewing habits have been shaped by RealityTV, in the past a Trump candidacy never gets off the ground because he is historically unqualified and that is a fact. This will upset some people, but it doesn’t make it untrue. Others will accept it as true and admit that’s why they are voting for him because he’s not qualified the way those in the established political world are and that is seen as a benefit.
I’m sure Secretary Clinton wanted to run another campaign on the road she hopes will make her the first female president in our country’s history. She could have very well been in that room with Toby and President Bartlet seeking to run a campaign on smart, engaged, and qualified. Unfortunately, for her, and for us, that’s not the campaign we’re getting or that we surely deserve. We are in 2016 and instead of The Celebrity Apprentice we’re getting The Presidential Apprentice. Secretary Clinton, a policy wonk, clearly wants this campaign to be about that because she believes that is what matters substantively, regardless of whether people agree with her on policy or not. Now, in September before a national election she finds herself in a street fight where either accidentally or purposefully she will have to find a way to make sound bites into substance and nonsense into nuance. This weekend that fight finds itself under the hot street light talking about isms in our culture. Secretary Clinton better hope that the media and the electorate are smart enough and engaged enough to make sense of nonsense and maybe even enter into an authentic dialogue about racism, sexism, and the like rather than have these hateful beliefs and behaviors remain in the shadows.
As I write this post it’s literally in the hour of the fifteen year mark of time since 9/11. Oh the places we’ve gone and shouldn’t have gone since that early morning of September 11, 2001. My desperate hope is that we as Americans can return to the essence of that ‘bullhorn moment’ of George W. Bush following the events of 9/11 when most Americans stood beside a president and remembered it’s in our very fabric that we are “stronger together.” There are many that mock the Clinton campaign slogan now for various reasons, but it doesn’t make it untrue just because it’s her slogan; it really is an American slogan no matter who we vote for, which is exactly why one man, or woman, can’t fix Washington. If one person could fix it all we wouldn’t be such a mess. Democracy by its nature is messy, but it’s most certainly messier when we have “become inured to the incivility, exhibitionism, and celebrity obsession caused by the narcissism epidemic” (The Narcissism Epidemic by Twenge and Campbell) that makes us think one person or one party has all the correct solutions all the time.
There are plenty of actual policy critiques to make of presidential nominee Clinton and Democrats which are fair, and should continue to be made, but stronger together should not be among them. But the nonsense contingent will keep the drumbeat alive on this recent sound bite because she said ‘half’ while the nuance contingent will stop and consider the entirety of the context and who she was actually taking to task. She was very clear that she is talking about racists, sexists, homophobes, xenophobes, Islamophobes, and a candidate who cradles those who hold such beliefs and practice such behaviors rather than seek to understand who they are and call them out himself and challenge them to knock it off, otherwise America cannot be great. Mr. Trump cannot do this because the shelf paper of his entire campaign has been lined with these beliefs and behaviors ever since he came down an escalator and called more than “some” Mexicans criminals and rapists. Mr. Trump began with deplorable and only a week ago finally gave voice to the expression “a new civil rights agenda.” Perhaps, he should have led with that message from the beginning and this campaign would have been one to make Toby and President Bartlet proud.
Graphic borrowed from The Huffington Post
What Kind of Day Will It Be?
Whether we like it or not these are some facts. We are living in a country in 2016 where both leading candidates are seen as unpopular and untrustworthy, for entirely different reasons. We are enduring a campaign that is absolutely painful to most of us whether Republican, Democrat, Independent, or other, also for entirely different reasons. We are living in a country where people are fearful, hopeful, and sometimes both. And we are still receiving political and policy talking points from all directions that often times are nonsense rather than nuance delivered through a media glad to give it to us that way in between a constant serving of Viagra commercials, or now campaign advertisements.
On The West Wing, a consistent theme of both moving on to bigger and better things while in the fast paced world of work in The White House came up in the form of a question, ‘What’s next?’ Unfortunately, during this election cycle in our history many of us begrudgingly ask ourselves that very question in a different way, ‘What in the holy heck can possibly be next?’ Unlike life on The West Wing we’re not usually eager about the answer, because we’ve all become involuntary participants in this season’s long con known as The Presidential Apprentice. What should be next should be a dignified campaign and debate about substance over sound bites, nuance over nonsense. Spoiler alert: that is not what we will be getting these next two months as that’s not what we’ve had from the beginning. Why start now?
On this one issue of comments about those voters who are racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, or Islamophobic, whether it was a gaffe or not, it will be called a gaffe, because the media needs it to be one for their very survival. What the media will have a hard time digesting is that we can still respect the voters’ right to think and believe as they choose while at the same time not respecting their actual beliefs or behaviors that perpetuate acts of racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, or Islamophobia. Personally, I would respect an individual more if he or she said I’m racist and here’s why, rather than deny it because it’s the politically correct thing to do. For supporters of Mr. Trump who are offended by the remarks because they consider themselves none of the above, then I would suggest at least equal outrage be directed at those fellow supporters who are giving you a bad reputation, as well as demand that your candidate have substantive conversations about such issues that are required of a “civil rights agenda” he suggested last week.
What kind of day has it been in this incredibly strange election year in this incredibly great country that remains deeply flawed? It’s the kind of day when the candidate, who was brought to us by his Reality TV persona and his birtherism agenda to delegitimize the nation’s first black president, will somehow obtain credit for not being crystal clear about what is and what is not deplorable in our country that continues to struggle with civil rights and civility, despite Secretary Clinton making herself abundantly clear. What kind of day will it be? Hopefully each day between now and election day and well beyond will be ones where we do not surrender to nonsense. Instead may we all actively choose to be a participant in, or recipient of, the nuance expected of a great nation and leader in the world.
May God bless the United States of America.
“The bottom line is that we cannot afford suddenly to treat this like a reality show.” President Barack Obama
Not even 24 hours from posting this blog entry comes exactly what I anticipated only more spot on if you listen closely. “People like you, you, and you, deplorable” which was immediately preceded by identifying those very traits/behaviors in voters who fit the mold of racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, etc. So, this new ad will continue to remind all voters who listen closely that it’s not about hard working it’s about the deplorable behaviors which candidate Trump just excused in his own campaign video.
*For fans of The West Wing, or for those who have never watched, it may be found on Netflix and you may want to check out the new podcast that weekly details each episode called The West Wing Weekly (http://thewestwingweekly.com/,@westwingweekly, #TWWW).