Why "The West Wing" still matters
Starting a West Wing tumblr in 2012 might seem like a strange decision since the show has been off the air for almost six years. But the show was eerily prescient about some issues, and dealt with them earlier than we faced them as a nation. There was a warning about how banks were handling money, how important privacy and freedom on the Internet would be in the coming years, and the pressure of religious groups on politicians. This started in the first episode and carried throughout the series. During Season 6, episode 20 was titled “In God We Trust” and found Arnold Vinick (played by Alan Alda) being questioned about his faith (or lack thereof). He struggled to remain true to himself, knowing that there were voters who would choose not to vote for him if he did not have — or at least pretend to have — religious convictions. When talking to the press, he said:
I don’t see how we can have a separation of church and state in this government if you have to pass a religious test to get in this government. And I want to warn everyone in the press and all the voters out there if you demand expressions of religious faith from politicians, you are just begging to be lied to. They won’t all lie to you but a lot of them will. And it will be the easiest lie they ever had to tell to get your votes. So, every day until the end of this campaign, I’ll answer any question anyone has on government, But if you have a question on religion, please go to church.
In the past few weeks I read an article that suggested that Mitt Romney was doing exactly that: giving lip service to religion to appease voters but has no real religious conviction himself. Then again, George W. Bush talked a good religious game, but I never saw much evidence of actual religious belief informing his presidency.~ The Ten Commandments ~
Perhaps the simplest case of religion and politics is the issue of the 10 Commandments. There have been numerous court cases about the 10 Commandments being posted on government property. Usually the argument will be made that the 10 Commandments are the foundation of the U.S. legal system and moral code.
The first episode of The West Wing in September 1999 dealt with this issue. Josh, Toby, and CJ have a meeting with three people who are essentially “lobbyists” for religion. Josh had made a joke about religion on a Sunday morning talk show, and one thread of the episode unfolds the aftermath of that comment. This meeting is near the end of the episode, and tempers are heating up. While Josh may have been guilty of making a cheap joke at the expense of someone else’s religious beliefs, Mary Marsh has accidentally revealed her anti-semitism.
Van Dyke tries to get the conversation back on track by trying to talk about the importance of the 10 Commandments. The only problem is that he gets the first commandment wrong. He claims that the first commandment is about honoring your mother and father. Toby tells him he is wrong. Josh tries to get Toby to let it go, but Toby insists.
Toby is right that it’s not the first commandment. But he’s wrong too. He says that “Honor Thy Father” is the third commandment. Depending on which numbering system you use it’s either the 4th or 5th. (Yes, there’s disagreement about the numbering system. So when someone says we should post the 10 commandments, ask them “Which version?”) However, Toby isn’t representing himself as a religious leader who thinks these issues are important. Van Dyke is.
But the West Wing is just a TV show, right? This would never really happen, would it?
Well, as you’ve no doubt heard before, truth is often stranger than fiction.
Back in 2006, Stephen Colbert interviewed Lynn Westmoreland, a Congressman from Georgia’s 8th district. Westmoreland had done almost nothing during his time in office (and, when questioned, said that there was a Democrat “Do-Nothing” Congressman too, although he couldn’t remember their name), but one of the things he had supported was trying to get the 10 Commandments posted on federal property.
You can watch the entire interview (Better Know a District - Georgia’s 8th - Lynn Westmoreland Update) but it really gets good around the 5 minute mark:
You co-sponsored a bill requiring the display of the 10 commandments in the House of Representatives and the Senate. Why was that important to you?
The Ten Commandments is not a bad thing for people to understand and to respect…
I’m with you.
Where better place could you have something like that than a judicial building, or in a courthouse?
That is a good question. Can you think of any better building to put the 10 commandments in than in a public building?
No. I think if we were totally without them we might lose a sense of our direction.
What are the 10 Commandments?
What are all of them?
You want me to name them all?
(looking upwards, perhaps for divine inspiration?) Um… [about 10 seconds passes] Don’t murder… Don’t lie… Don’t steal… um… I can’t name them all.
(looks blankly at him)
(shows no recognition of why this is a bad thing)
Congressman, thank you for taking time away from keeping the Sabbath day holy to talk with me.
He only got 3 out of 10. Noticeably absent: don’t covet and don’t commit adultery. Hard to imagine a politician forgetting those two.
So here we have a politician who has a record of doing nothing in Congress except suggesting that the 10 Commandments are something we should post because without them we “might lose a sense of our direction” and he can’t even name them.
In 2008, Lynn Westmoreland was the Congressman who referred to Obama as “uppity.” When asked to clarify, he reaffirmed this choice of the word “uppity.”
The Colbert Report replayed the clip again.
As of January 1st, 2012, Lynn Westmoreland is still a Congressman.
Later in the West Wing we see a vainglorious Republican shut down the government over the budget.
Not that we’d ever see that in real life.
Anyway, in case anyone wondered why people still talk about The West Wing. It’s not just a show that went off the air 6 years ago. It turned out that it was a prophetic warning about things to come.
Hence, a West Wing tumblr for 2012.
“**Jed:** I'm not a woman and I don't work here. **Mrs. Landingham:** The women who do are afraid for their jobs. If they bring it up, they're afraid for their jobs. What is it you're afraid of? **Jed:** Why do you talk to me like this? **Mrs. Landingham:** Because you never had a big sister and you need one. Look at you. You're a boy king. You're a foot smarter than the smartest kids in the class. You're blessed with inspiration. You must know this by now, you must have sensed it. Look, if you think we're wrong, if you think Mr. Hopkins should honestly get paid more than Mrs. Chadwick, then I respect that. **But if you think we're right, and you won't speak up 'cause you can't be bothered, then, God, Jed, I don't even want to know you.** … **Mrs. Landingham:** You know, if you don't want to run again, I respect that. **But if you don't run because you think it's gonna be too hard or you think you're gonna lose, well, God, Jed, I don't even want to know you.** ”—
Jed Bartlett and Mrs. Landingham, from the “Two Cathedrals” episode of The West Wing.
Two of the greatest characters ever written.
One of the (if not the) best episodes of one of the best shows ever written.