When I take breaks from playing and working outdoors, I find myself streaming The West Wing on Netflix. Besides my fantasy of living in an Aaron Sorkin world where everyone is wicked smart and funny with heads brimming with useful facts, that series was iconic for me in a strange, ultimately unsurprising, way.
As I have written here in the past, my life has zigged and zagged with the limits and possibilities of Panic Disorder. The disease manifested in the midst of my first real job as a low-level staff aide to a US Senator in Washington DC. I had been there for a year and was offered a serious entry policy position. It was the sort of political career path job that seemed beyond the dreams of a kid from Indio, California.
I couldn’t take the job. The disease was beginning to dominate my life, and with no real treatment available, I ended up leaving DC altogether. That unfinished business was the ghost in my machine.
Around the turn of the last century, the television show The West Wing appeared. It only took a couple of episodes for me to latch onto the character of the Deputy Chief of Staff, Josh. What he did in that show and who he was became the iconography of a life I was never able to live. I was jealous. I was sad. I was pissed off. Mostly, I wondered if I could have done what Josh was doing in politics. Not in the White House, just in politics of some sort.
I left my career in IT to see if I could finish an incomplete act. A deep part of me knew that if I never gave it a try, I would have this horrible question mark on my gravestone. There are many people with these sort of incomplete pieces in their lives. In this one respect, I was determined not to be part of that cohort.
Hard work, luck and chutzpah resulted in my working on the Nick Fish campaign and almost eight years in Portland City Hall. I left abruptly earlier this year. Here is where The West Wing comes in.
Having done the work in City Hall and politics, I still wasn’t sure I had achieved what I set out to do. Episode by episode, watching what my iconic Josh character did, I was sure I was, in fact, done when I left City Hall. I had lived my dream.
The show is amazingly accurate in the little things that happen working for an elected. I have come up with ideas and nursed them to fruition through the agency of my commissioner. I have written phrases in speeches and talking points only to see them on television later that night. I was the silent one in the room who slid notes in front of the boss that changed the conversation or informed him of important events.
Then there are the goofy little things. The TV show accurately portrays what it is like to join the boss complaining about the people in the meeting room, looking at each other in exasperation, then pulling the door open, smiling and treating those same people like the most important meeting that day.
The dealings with reporters on the West Wing are spot on. I have engaged in the wonderful exercise of talking to a reporter in a game of three-dimensional chess. What do I want them to know? What do they really want to know? When do we go off or on the record? How far can I reveal what I know to give them a story while concealing what we don’t want them reporting? Who can I leak a story to today? Honestly, this complex dance was some of the most fun I had in my old job. It was endlessly challenging and you got immediate feedback on your success or failure by reading the story online minutes or hours later. I miss that…a lot.
The show does a very good job portraying the exasperation of politics, the compromises, the risks not assumed, and the problems left unsolved. And it captures what is like to pitch ideas, things you are passionate about, only to have the boss go a completely different direction making it your job to promote and defend decisions you personally may not love…and sometimes…not respect. But in the end, you didn’t take the risk for running for office, he did, and that’s the job.
Watching the West Wing reminded me that I did complete a sentence left dangling in Washington DC decades ago. Episode after episode, I laugh or choke up when I tell myself, yea, I did that too. And, I remember how lucky I was to live a little dream by doing public service…actually good things for people I will never meet. As corny, or improbable, as it sounds in the current ocean of disdain for government, it is still possible to make people’s lives a little better in public service.
If I every need to remind myself that I actually did what I set out to do the cure is simple. I get in my car and go out to East Portland to hidden little park called East Holladay. I then watch kids, closely monitored by their parents, playing in the children’s play area on variety equipment. I call those tangible things the “but fors.” But for my public service, that playground wouldn’t have existed. Josh was a fiction. That playground, and many other things in Portland I accomplished are real. For that opportunity I will always be thankful to the sometimes exasperating, always hyper-kinetic, deeply committed public servant, Nick Fish.