I must confess that I became something of a fan of The West Wing thanks to re-runs of the first and second seasons on Bravo Network over the summer.
As I compare those earlier episodes with those of the newly christened Season 5 currently airing on NBC, I am struck with the contrasting leadership styles of Martin Sheen's President Bartlet and John Goodman's Acting President Walken. I think that when Aaron Sorkin created The West Wing, he sought to play out some of the drama of the White House in the best Clintonian sense. Everyone on the show is intelligent, educated, and passionate about issues; President Bartlet is a former college professor and Nobel Prize winner in economics for goodness sake! For all that education and intellect, however, everyone is liberal enough and over-educated enough to recognize that there are no simple answers to problems. They are always willing to debate issues, causes, and solutions, thereby providing the weekly "civics lessons" that seemed to make up a large part of the early shows. I also think that this is precisely how Democrats (at least the ones like me) envision the best liberal government -- the best and brightest engaged in eternal Socratic interrogation of each other in order to do the their best for everyone.
When you fast forward to last week's season premiere, I see a vastly different decision making process in place. John Goodman's Acting President Walken has a short list of principles that absolutely governs all the decisions he makes, and is not above a little opportunism in order to put those principles into practice. So, when you hear his character say that if the President's daughter is found dead, he's going to bomb something -- you believe him, without debate or anyone else's say in the matter.
Personally, I find the latter style of leadership rather scary. Speaking as someone who is more prone to seeing the continuum of grays between black and white, leadership and decision making based on a small number of absolutes is an alien way of looking at issues and the world. Perhaps I am particularly scared by the realization that this is how our current President has been making the decisions that have taken this country to war twice, attacked our civil liberties, and gotten us embroiled in a foreign adventure of occupation that will weigh us down for years to come.
When I think of the Democratic and Republican Presidents who have served in the last 40 or so years, I am struck at the differences in the intellectual and cultural qualifications that the candidates of each party brought to the office. The Democrats brought in one Pulizer Prize Winner (John F. Kennedy), a nuclear engineer who later won the Nobel Peace Prize (Jimmy Carter), and a Rhodes Scholar (Bill Clinton) with a career politican with many years of government service (Lyndon Johnson) in reserve. Looking to the Republican side, there are two career politicians who had excellent background in government service (Richard Nixon and George H. W. Bush), an ex-actor and ex-Governor turned ideological hero (Ronald Reagan), and a failed oil speculator, sports club owner, and ex-Governor (George W. Bush) who will no doubt be an ideological hero to future generations still being born (however misplaced I think that worship is).
When you look at them as a group, I think some patterns emerge. Republicans don't seem to want intelligent, complicated approaches to problems. They want the simple answer, even when it makes no sense given the circumstances. For proof, Reagan and G. W. Bush, his ideological heir, are both lionized and both seem(ed) to govern from a very short list of ideas, and the details, well they are just a little too confusing. In contrast, G. H. W. Bush is percieved to be a weak President by the conservatives currently in vogue simply because his view of the world was too internationalist, and too, well, complicated because it actually involved creating a consensus between nations and groups rather than "just doing what's right, right now". Nixon's record is idealogically neutral; while his approach to domestic and international issues is decidedly complex, he is the victim of the "liberal media" who hounded him out of office (amidst his efforts to subvert the U.S. Constitution.) He is therefore a martyr in the eyes of some conservatives in much the same way that Kennedy is a saint to liberals, despite Kennedy's own decidedly mixed record.
In short, leadership is about the ability to make choices and show others how to follow them. Me, I prefer an intellectual approach -- a reasoned argument that attempts to take everyone into account. Others seem to simply look for someone who will act from a tightly held group of ideals that mirror their own. I personally believe that this is the wrong approach, but, hey... if Ann Coulter is mad at me for it, I choose to believe that I'm doing something right.
on 2003-10-01 at 3:21 p.m.
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