Those who know me well, know I’m a massive West Wing fan. I quote chunks of screenplay verbatim and like other clergy fans, shoehorn quotes into sermons in a kind of West Wing Sermon bingo.
But before West Wing Aaron Sorkin, the show’s creative genius had other works. The best know is A few good men translated from a stage play into a humdinger of a film. Yet it’s his 1995 creation The American President which is, at least for a West Wing geek, a fascinating watch.
The American President is essentially a romcom with a good political sideline. Annette Benning and Michael Douglas star, the former as the latter’s ‘love interest’. President Andrew Shepherd, nearing the end of his first term comes under more and more pressure because (as a relatively recent widower, single parent and President) he’s dating a liberal lobbyist. He faces the ire of the blowhard Senator Bob Rumson. The more President Shepherd refuses to engage in a ‘character debate’ the lower his approval rating becomes (and the declining possibility of him being re-elected sends his staff into meltdown).
It’s fun just to see how many familiar faces Sorkin uses – it’s the sight of Martin Sheen as the President’s Chief of Staff which makes one do a double take.
The most powerful part though is Shepherd’s denouement speech. It uses every rhetorical device (and the movie pulls the stirring strings out too). It’s blistering stuff: classic Sorkin screenplay. You can watch it here. The comments about gun crime at the end make an awful lot of sense as well…
However, its in the past few weeks that I’ve been brought back to the central contention of Shepherd’s speech:
I’ve known Bob Rumson for years. And I’ve been operating under the assumption that the reason Bob devotes so much time and energy to shouting at the rain was that he simply didn’t get it. Well, I was wrong. Bob’s problem isn’t that he doesn’t get it. Bob’s problem is that he can’t sell it!
We have serious problems to solve, and we need serious people to solve them. And whatever your particular problem is, I promise you Bob Rumson is not the least bit interested in solving it. He is interested in two things, and two things only: making you afraid of it, and telling you who’s to blame for it. That, ladies and gentlemen, is how you win elections.
That penultimate line seems to me to be all too true: “He is interested in two things, and two things only: making you afraid of it, and telling you who’s to blame for it.”
Modern politics seems in decline, like much public square debate, perhaps because it has become so completely centered on making us afraid and telling us who to blame. In doing so, engaging though that can be at times, it fails to proffer any real solutions. It is utterly frustrating.
So as the rhetoric ramps up, and the claims become ever more extreme, the hyperbole ever more bizarre and the relationship to facts, trust and truth ever more strained; so our reaction is one of ever more sinking hearts. At worst it leads us, collectively into an apolitical angst and through that to listen to anyone, however extreme, who might at least be willing to suggest what ‘answers’ might exist to our problems.
Politics is about character, Sorkin is right.
But it also has to be about truth, facts and trust. That should be how elections are won. That it isn’t is a sad reflection on politicians, and on us. We, after all, put them there.