Tuesday, February 14, 2006

The West Wing Comes to Town

I went to hear Bradley Whitford speak at American University last night. His appearance was sponsored by the school of public affairs. He was introduced by someone from the school who bore an uncanny resemblance to Donna Moss (Janel Moloney), who played his assistant on the show, but who in the past season went to work for Vice President Bob Russell's (Gary Cole) campaign, while Whitford's character (Josh Lyman) lined up with future nominee and dark horse candidate, Texas Congressman Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits).

In any event, Whitford gave what I would label as a free wheeling speech, interweaving anecdotes and observations from his West Wing experience (and a delicious, self-deprecating reference to the Adam Sandler vehicle, Billy Madison, in which Whitford played the scheming brother--Whitford claims to not ever having actually watched the movie) with his political opinions and endeavors.

He joked that on behalf of the acting president, he thanked them for welcoming him.

On the substance, Whitford criticized the descent of political discourse, particularly on cable television (which reminded me of Jon Stewart's rap on his renowned Cross Fire visit), which he argued amounts to not much more than each side trading programmed talking points and insults, after which no one learns anything and no minds are changed, or at least even affected.

Whitford also deadpanned the acting business and the habit of celebrities to venture political opinions. He referred to these types of people, in typical self mocking style, as Meat Puppets. He admonished the audience that when people like him speak out to consider the speaker's motivation and their actual knowledge of the issues.

Still, he defended his and other's responsibility to speak out, and to not be intimidated into silence by some other self-appointed celebrity spokesman like Bill O'Reilly. Whitford says that while he and his Quaker family were politically in tune throughout his life, he was led to take a more active, public role in the past six years with the advent of the Bush administration's policies in Iraq and towards the environment and his own emerging role as a father (his wife is actress Jane Kacsmarek of Malcolm in the Middle).

Of his West Wing experience Whitford is proud the series has emphasized the sad reality of how much time politicians spend worrying about how a particular issue will "play" rather than on what a particular policy's effects might be and what the right thing is to do. He also noted that the show transcends the limits of conventional political debate by casting its characters as neither totally villanous or virtuous, but as combinations of both.

Of the present, Whitford lamented the influence the media, in particular television, has on the selection of the country's political leaders. Saying its unfortunately more important for a candidate to "seem presidential" and to come across appealing on television than be a person of character and smarts, Whitford lamented the fact that schmoozers like Clinton and Bush get elected rather than more untelegenic candidates like Al Gore. Of Clinton, Whitford observed the former president is someone who, because of his troubled family background, has a very visible need to be loved, which affected his actions as president, while someone like Gore, who had a much stronger family background, was more content and not as inclined to try to make people like him, but that this paradoxically, made it harder for someone like Gore to relate well to the public.

Whitford also related his experience at the All Souls Church he attends in California, which because its pastor spoke out before the election became the object of an IRS investigation. Whitford says the pastor did not make an explicit candidate preference public and in fact, held up both Bush and Kerry to the scrutiny of Christian morals and found both lacking. Whitford went futher and called out the president and his evangelical backers on the matter of not practicing the faith they claim to uphold. Whitford noted that while the president has said that Christ has "changed his heart", Whitford hoped that knowing Christ would soon cause Bush to "change his policies".

What does Whitford plan to do after the West Wing ends this season? "Pursue opportunities in the private sector", he joked.

Whitford encouraged the audience to speak out, to be active, to engage in the right they hold as participants in a democracy, echoing the words of Nelson Mandella whom he quoted as saying that what people fear is not their inadequacies, but their power. People are more afraid of the light than the darkness in themselves, Whitford said.

Afterwards, Whitford didn't follow the practice of other celebrities, but went out of his "bubble" to take questions, the first of which was from a young woman who, in addition to asking a policy question, asked if she could get a lock of his hair. Surprisingly, the actor obliged the latter request.

Update: Sorry about all the updated posts today but I just remembered the most important comment of the night from Whitford. That comment was about how conservatives have succeeded, unfortunately, at making the word "liberal" a curseword. Whitford identified himself as a liberal, lamenting the treatment this term and the good works that have been carried out under its name has received from the media and political establishment.

Whitford didn't pick this ball up and run with it, but as readers of this blog will recognize, I think this is THE issue Democrats have to face in today's political debate and in future elections. If Democrats don't succeed in reversing the way labels like "conservative" and "liberal" are conceived and spoken of in public forums and cable tv news shout fests, they will have a much harder road to climb in winning back power. If the Democrats choose to run as conservatives (i.e. stressing "competence" or "corruption" over ideology), any electoral victories will ultimately prove to be temporal, resulting in all of us having these "what's wrong with the Democrats" conservations ten and twenty years from now.

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