By Tom Ehrich
One of my favorite scenes in “The West Wing” was when a top reporter declined to pass along a rumor and lectured press secretary “CJ Cregg” about gossip vs. news.
On Saturday, at a neighborhood brunch, I met a man who looked familiar. He said he was an actor and had appeared in TV shows I watch. But I knew his face from that episode of “The West Wing,” where he did a two-episode gig as an ethical reporter.
It took me aback. I just finished my third journey through the seven seasons of Aaron Sorkin’s masterpiece. As counterpoint to the insanity and ugliness of recent presidential campaigning and Congressional obstructionism, the TV show hints of a better world where politicians compromise and sometimes even the most partisan warriors behave as statesmen.
I realize that I have been willing to set aside the implied rule of the proscenium arch and, like the fan who recently displayed a “Bartlet for President” placard in real time, to imagine these characters as real people. Imagine that much respect for the Constitution, that much collaboration between politicians and the military facing serious global issues, that much self-restraint, that much willingness, as Alan Alda’s “Senator Vinick” showed in declining to challenge a narrow loss, to put the interests of the nation first.
Another favorite scene is when “President Bartlet” dresses down a fundamentalist for misusing the Scripture to justify her bigotry. Imagine a politician of either party daring to cross the religious right wing.
I know full well, of course, that “Josh Lyman” and “Donna Moss” aren’t real people. But over seven seasons, I watched both of them grow, not just fall in love, but grow as persons who could move beyond inherited roles and meet on equal ground. Imagine people honoring the complexities of gender, romance, respect, self-definition, risk, discovery – and not just firing at each other over stereotypes and ideological fault-lines.
I wanted to ask my neighbor what it was like being part of that program. But he didn’t welcome TV talk, and it’s just as well. In the same way, our hostess didn’t want to talk about being a regular on “A Prairie Home Companion.” Some boundaries need to remain, both to preserve performers’ privacy, and to preserve the imagining that good art invites.
I have never wanted to know how much booze Ernest Hemingway drank and what an insecure bully he was. It is enough to read “A clean well-lighted place” and discover it as the perfect short story, and to imagine myself writing crisp sentences in which every word counts.
It takes a special genius for a writer to allow his characters to grow. Most stick with the stick-figures that got them the last big advance. Aaron Sorkin is such a genius. So is the crew writing for “NCIS.” Not many can do it.
But when we see that genius, we come close to understanding God. For of all the attributes ascribed to God, from judgment to wrath to mercy to patience, perhaps the signal attribute is God’s willingness to let us grow. We can evolve. We can get better at this thing called life. We can overcome our origins and our shortcomings. Our hope isn’t that we were born a certain way or, by some baptismal magic, made perfect. Our hope is that we can look at another’s eyes, see the love in them or see the hurt we have caused, and take the risk of saying the next thing with humility.