|C.J. Cregg, played by Allison Janney|
So we started watching "The West Wing" -- from the pilot episode, on -- to check our memories that it was the best TV of all time. Netflix obliged us. That old show -- which premiered in 1999 on NBC in the waning days of Bill Clinton's misadventures in Mugstomp-on-the-Potomac -- looks to me now like evergreen commentary on guts versus compromise and a culturally significant artifact from the sundowning of American liberalism.
I don't believe I found the show until well into its 1st season of 22 episodes, in the late fall of 1999, as the buzz about it spread. I remember Stockard Channing vividly as Abigail Bartlet, but she didn't appear as a character until about four episodes into the run. So the earliest eps are new to me, but the whole production has made me laugh out loud, and moved me to tears, and reminded me of our naive hopes and unrealized fears about a president who is actually a good person. Cheating on his wife would never happen, nor cheating period.
I try to remember what we were up to back when "The West Wing" captured our imaginations. We had recently been involved in the painful resurrection of a Democratic Party in our local county. Old Guard Democrats were not amused that we had organized insurgents in almost all 20 precincts and took control of the party at the 1997 county convention. Which split the party. Which took time to heal (and may not in fact be fully healed even yet).
The new guys were activists and organizers, "liberals" in the parlance of the day. Bright-eyed optimists and pushy reformers who wanted to change stuff. They easily earned the resentment and opposition from a conservative old guard. But the new party -- better organized with each passing month -- nevertheless won two seats on the local county commission in 1998, and with the election of a third Democrat, very much an old guard type who eventually admitted that he was really a Republican and switched parties -- Democrats had taken control of county government for the first time in years. "Control," so to speak because while liberals ran the Party, conservatives ran the County Commission and were rooted among the business elite. During the election campaigns of 2000, the old guard actually opened its own rival "Democratic Party HDQs" and entertained its own constituency, especially among the legal community and various business interests.
I had sort of forgotten that "The West Wing" was really about those same tectonic pressures and the strains and failures that can follow. President Josiah ("Jed") Bartlet's flaw is his hesitance, a caution about acting on his beliefs, and the great dramatic conflict of the first season seesaws between a desirable liberal menu of high-minded cultural causes, and the iron maiden of compromise ("betrayal"). The greatest threats to the stability of the universe is said to be the liberals who are too radical, refusing under any circumstances to compromise. The frustrations of the president's idealistic staff, that even with a liberal Democrat as president, liberals are always always forced to compromise away the marrow of their beliefs. But finally, in the episode titled "Let Bartlet Be Bartlet," number 19 of 22, the president and his chief of staff decide to stop the habit of pussyfooting and to make the appointments they want to, rather than the ones the party honchos in the Senate want. They gird for battle, the promised retaliation by a Congress in the hands of the opposition. You feel your pulse quicken when fictional characters take out the sword and throw away the scabbard.
C.J. Cregg, played by wonderful flamingo Allison Janney, provides stunningly fresh commentary from two decades ago on what a presidential Press Secretary ought not to be, a lying co-conspirator in a criminal enterprise. C.J. Cregg suffers torment when she inadvertently cites the law wrong on appointees to the Federal Election Commission -- an honest error of not reading the briefing paper -- and she agonizes like a repentant sinner in the hands of an angry God, even going to the president for forgiveness for something so inconsequential. She intends always to be accurate, to be honest, and anyone causing her to utter untruths in the daily briefing is in for hellfire. She has a powerful moral compass and can blast the president himself to stay out of something he has no business sticking his nose into. She's a rock and funny to boot. A sense of humor about herself, and honesty -- a combo missing from our world.