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My West Wing

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Here’s a confession: When I first walked into the West Wing, I thought it would look more like The West Wing. Lighting that matched the mood—shady and dramatic, with secrets lurking in every corner. Staff walking and talking quickly down claustrophobic hallways. An atmosphere of drama and importance. Though I’d been working for then-Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) for a couple of years by the time the George W. Bush administration welcomed our transition staff to the White House, I had never set foot inside the Oval Office and didn’t know that insiders call it, simply, The Oval. When I made my entrance in December 2008, I had two thoughts. First, that the Christmas decorations were amazing. I love Christmas. And second, that it was really bright in there—so bright that it looked like a television or movie set.

I would soon learn that the staff cranked up the lights so TV crews and photographers wouldn’t need to bring extra equipment to shoot there. As the director of scheduling and advance planning and, later, the deputy chief of staff for operations for President Obama, I worked in the West Wing for a little over five years, and in that time my view of the physical space—and the job of the president—evolved. For every detail that “seemed like a movie” or “was just like The West Wing,” there was a practical or historical explanation that transcended the superficial impression I got from Hollywood. I came to understand working in the White House as a deeply humbling, singular experience that could be approximated, but never really represented, by fiction.

But a strange thing has happened to me since last November. I now find myself joining all those escapist liberals who like to reminisce about The West Wing, or occasionally the 1995 romantic comedy The American President. Not just because they’re so goddamn hopeful, and not just because they’re so goddamn liberal. It’s really because those fake presidencies feel so much more familiar to me than this real one. And I’m guessing I’m not the only person who has gone to bed after a long night of Netflix hoping I’ll wake up to find Jed or Andrew helming @POTUS instead of, well, this.

On one hand, I resent this tremendously. I can sense your eyes rolling and I know how cheesy this sounds. I also know that presidents on television and in movies are not meant to depict the realities of the job, which aren’t easily summed up in pat narrative arcs. Compromise is (supposed to be) a fundamental feature of government, but putting aside differences and establishing priorities are not exactly the most riveting processes to watch. Fictional debates are extreme shouting matches, but the White House is generally a lot like normal office politics in that respect: People generally opt for passive-aggressive professional jargon like, “Ping me when you’re done with the brief” instead of slamming their hands on the table and screaming, “Damn it, Toby! The country is depending on that fucking brief!” For all the glamorous state dinners and urgent problems, working at the White House was often really tedious. In some ways, it was like any other desk job, with petty office politics and long hours—the office was just prettier, and we tried to conduct ourselves with a level of seriousness befitting the profession. (Though not always, especially if there was Mariah Carey gossip that week.)

Then, there were the protocols—there were thousands of them, and they were all important. They took a while to understand, but eventually, like the bright lights in the Oval, you realize they’re there for a reason. That reason might not be the sexiest or most camera-ready idea you could imagine—which is why the fictional portrayals are never that realistic.

Finally, there’s the fact that we cared about each other. We cried (OK—mostly me), failed, and succeeded together. It is commonly assumed that the people orbiting the president must be big shots in their own right. But my experience was the opposite: I always felt small in the face of the tremendous responsibility that came with working for President Obama. It was never, ever about us in the White House. The contrast to the Trump White House underscores the value of our humility.

In the months since Trump was elected, though, I’ve found myself longing for the romance of TV presidents. I always liked them before. (I’ve always been a sucker for the line from President Andrew Shepherd’s final press conference: “America isn’t easy. America is advanced citizenship. You’ve gotta want it bad, ’cause it’s gonna put up a fight!”) But now I feel almost wistful about them. Part of that may be my nostalgia, which deepens every time I think of the current cast of misfits running the government. But another part of it is that there’s a kernel of truth in the sensational depictions of White House life that prevail on TV—and that truth is that the job of a president isn’t simply to represent a political party, or manage a government, or fight for certain legislation. The job of the president is also to represent and espouse America’s oldest values and highest ideals, even if it sounds hokey sometimes. (At the Democratic convention last year, Obama pleaded with the country, “Democracy works, America, but we got to want it.” Compare that to the Shepherd line. See what I mean?)

The word presidential has been thrown around a lot since Trump overtook American politics—mainly by people who say he doesn’t resemble the term, at all. And although it may not be the most important part of the job, Trump’s responses to national tragedies underscore how critical it is that the leader of our country reflect competence, confidence, calm, and preparedness. In difficult moments, the president should be able to lift up all citizens, and remind us what it means to be Americans. Ronald Reagan did it after the Challenger explosion; Obama did it after a white supremacist slaughtered black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina.

We’re missing that with Trump right now. His broader incompetence and malevolence pose such great dangers to the country that zeroing in on his inability to convey empathy might seem minor by comparison. But it is important. A quiet source of social cohesion. Trump has made the presidency seem trivial—more like the game show he used to host than any other Hollywood presidency. He played himself on television for years before he took office, and he’s brought the fakeness of that performance to the White House. He treats the presidency as if it entailed the same duties as hosting America’s Next Top Model—picking off contestants one by one—than a place that shapes the the lives of all Americans. Even ones Trump would rate below seven.

It is often said that Trump is playacting the role of president. But even if were simply trying to be a television president, he’d be behaving much differently than he is today. He’d be trying, awkwardly, to inspire us with corny speeches, and trying to imitate real statesmen, and we’d be better off for it.

If you’re looking to see that kind of transformation today, your best bet will be to find The West Wing. It’s streaming on Netflix.