This sage observation by my boo Toby Ziegler is taken from episode 1.20 of The West Wing, in a scene that concerns whether a ruling by the American Medical Association should be used as the basis for drug enforcement legislation. The full text of the scene can be found here, a little less than half way down the page, in case you have nothing better to do with your day than read teleplays of The West Wing. I actually laughed out loud when I heard this line, but not because of my partiality to the witty rhythms of Sorkinese, or even because Toby’s characteristically Jewish disgruntlement about all things always makes me swoon.
No, it was because this little exchange perfectly exemplified what I’ve thought to myself over and over as I’ve lovingly rewatched the first season of The West Wing over the past two weeks: My, times have changed! (Also: My, Rob Lowe’s chin and jaw! And he’s not even my type!)
As we have all come to understand in the past ten years, science is not, in fact, science to everybody in this country. I’m sure it wasn’t in May 2000 either, when this episode aired. But what’s amazing to me about this scene is that aside from the “Al” character, who is generally portrayed as a cynical and distasteful buffoon, every single one of these brilliant political strategists seems to take it for granted that a law will be supported by the general public as long as the government can argue that it has an unequivocal basis in science. Because science is science, and ultimately science will always trump ideology when it comes to policymaking. Of course.
This post is not meant to be a head-shaking diatribe on how awful I find it that this isn’t true anymore, because you can read such diatribes everywhere. This post is about how totally wonderful and bizarre it feels to watch The West Wing at this particular moment in time. Because god, these people Aaron Sorkin has running the country are all so decent. And fair-minded. They talk confidently about how America enjoys the strongest peacetime economy in decades. They pass legislation that will provide hundreds of millions of dollars in funding for public education. They are fully dedicated to the separation between church and state and the right to privacy and they don’t couch their support for reproductive freedom in patronizing bullshit about how “painful” and “tragic” abortion is for women. They’re liberals. Like actual ones. I mean, can you imagine?
Granted, The West Wing was always something of a feel-good liberal fantasy, but it just astounds me that there was a time in the not-so-distant past when it was a plausible enough approximation of reality that it wasn’t laughed off the airwaves. I was 15 when Bush was elected and 16 on September 11th. I have no genuine recollection of this amazing thing called a “peacetime economy”; for as long as I’ve been politically conscious we’ve been at war. Fuck, I barely even remember what it’s like to live in a country with a robust economy of any kind. To say nothing of a time when a woman’s right to choose was passionately and unequivocally defended by anyone with any influence, and supporting mandatory administration of a vaccine that prevents an overwhelmingly widespread cancer-causing STD wasn’t political suicide.
So, The West Wing, for you I suspend my cynicism and check my snark at the door. With an open heart I run to you: to your long, winding tracking shots and the breakneck pace of your dialogue; to your academic humor and the unabashed intellectualism of your heroes; to C.J. Cregg, that fine lady who kicks ass and takes names with grace and integrity and wit and is so effing good at her job (ALSO she is my height and approximate build and we have an alarmingly similar vocal intonation. Squeeee!!!) And to Jeb Bartlett, a president with the wisdom, determination, nobility, and fiercely furrowed brow of that greatest symbol of American ideals:
Yep. You can bet that wasn’t an accident.