October 31, 2005Feature
The West Wing versus The Bush Administration
I say this because the show has consciously set up a parallel between the fictional Bartlet White House and the current Bush administration, in the context of how to handle a national security leak. Or, it must be admitted, how not to, with the Bush administration as the cautionary tale. Bad decisions make good drama, they say; I expect life in the real West Wing is quite dramatic these days — more dramatic, in fact, than in the Bartlet White House.
The string of events that led to the special investigation, and thus to indictments of high-ranking White House staff, seem like the stuff of fiction. Because it's hard to believe that senior policy officials in the most influential positions in the land could engage in such a farrago of wrongheaded, illegal, and just plain stupid maneuvers. If you wrote it as a script, nobody would believe it. So let's do a compare-and-contrast of how the Bartlet and Bush White Houses handle an important national security leak. The Bartlet White House is a liberal fantasy, and a self-admitted one. Ergo, when White House Communications Director Toby Ziegler leaks the existence of a secret military space shuttle to the Washington Post, he does it out of a conviction that the decision to militarize space should be made in the sunlight, after a full and public debate on the Episode . However impractical and naive this position might be, and whatever the decision's national security and political repercussions, there's no question Toby takes this action out of the best of intentions. He's always been the idealist voice on the show in the face of political expediency, and the show has never once suggested otherwise. It's a noble decision, if a foolish one.
|One might be charitable and read the tactic as a way of closing ranks in support of the president, but it primarily reads to me as vindictive and pointless.|
I will admit that in the greater scheme of things, revealing Valerie Plame's covert status could look like a lesser offense than revealing the existence of an entire secret military program that could destabilize foreign relations on a global scale. But I don't think anyone should get a pass for bad behavior just because it didn't cause much damage—and we don't know how much damage the loss of Plame as a working field operative actually caused. It's not like the CIA is going to tell us, after all.
Whoever the leak was in the Bush White House (as of this writing, apparently Scooter Libby), he or she hasn't confessed, even though the investigation has dragged on for two years. How many miles and miles of newsprint have been published on this story? So much for loyalty to one's coworkers. Although I suppose if the boss is saying, "no, you have to stay on the job," that's another kind of loyalty, the kind that President Bush has relied on for many years. So, loyalty is at work, but maybe not a lot of honesty: do we really think that there's anyone in that building who hasn't been questioned about their involvement in the leak yet? And yet there have been no confessions: ergo, someone is lying. In fact, the indictments handed down on Friday make it clear that the one thing the special prosecutor does have evidence for is perjury.
Finally, the Bartlet White House is complying with the investigation freely, making sure that there isn't even an appearance of impropriety. When there's a suspicion that the White House's internal investigation may look like an attempt to cover up the source of the leak, the President shuts it down. When Toby confesses, he is immediately isolated from both his office and his coworkers, and everyone he has come into contact with is grilled on their interactions. CJ consistently tells her staff to tell the truth when questioned. It is above board on an institutional level, from the President down, and it looks like there won't be any "lost notes".
|The latest rumor is that the administration's supporters are gearing up to sling mud at the Special Prosecutor. That's certainly one way of handling compliance with a national security investigation, if not one showing great dedication to the moral high road.|
As was memorably noted after Watergate, it's not the original crime that brings them down, it's the cover-up. Which brings me back to my original point: it's honestly hard to believe that political operatives with thirty or more years experience could have handled this situation so stupidly. They're making an over-dramatized storyline on an aging television drama look boring by comparison.
There's no question that The West Wing's writers are telling this story as a deliberate statement on the Plame investigation. Look how this situation could have been handled, they seem to say, by people with integrity and conviction (however misplaced); now look how it's actually been managed. It's kind of brave, I admit, especially for a show that's recently gone to some trouble to reach across the aisle to the Republicans among its viewership. But this storyline is a return to the old days: it's an entirely partisan commentary on the Bush administration.
As for me, I'd like to know whether it's coincidence or good planning that has this arc running at the very point that the Plame investigation is coming to a close. Coincidence seems more likely: Regular federal grand juries are empaneled for 18 months, with a single possible extension of 6 months. By June 2004, word was out that a grand jury was investigating, but not when it was empaneled or whether it would be extended (which it apparently was). I think we can safely assume that the West Wing writing staff didn't know that the exposure of Toby would happen within the same calendar week that the Vice President's chief of staff would be indicted for five felony counts ranging from perjury to obstruction of justice.
The timing, however, is impeccable. Because it is, after all, only a week until sweeps. Art, life, life, art: who cares, so long as it gets good ratings.
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