'West Wing' does feds right

I don't watch much television and have always been amazed at how much more

I can get done when it's turned off. However, on Wednesday nights, there

is a TV show I would urge everyone in and around government to watch: "The

West Wing," NBC's weekly drama about President Josiah Bartlett (played by

Martin Sheen) and senior White House staff.

In a number of nit-picking ways, "The West Wing" is inaccurate. Most

annoyingly, the West Wing halls on the show are far too bustling, and the

substantive politics of the West Wing, on issues such as gun control and

feminism, are conventionally liberal in a way that even liberals may find


But the reason people should watch this show is that it gives the fairest,

most balanced portrait of the workings of government ever presented on television.

That's good news for how Americans view government and the people in it — and not just the ones working in the White House, but feds in general.

Two images of people in government — somewhat internally contradictory,

but nonetheless corresponding to images many, or even most, Americans have — dominate entertainment. One is of all-powerful secret conspirators out

to crush citizens. The other is of dumb, lazy bureaucrats unable to box

their way out of a paper bag.

The characters on "The West Wing" are not angels. They sometimes do

things they believe are not right because of political pressures. However,

they are very hardworking, sincere people, who really try their best when

dealing with complex problems.

"The West Wing" provides a portrait of people neither evil nor bumbling,

to which few Americans get exposed. Viewers who expect to see wheeling and

dealing will instead see a president angry at himself when he makes a deal

to keep a report about sex education under wraps in exchange for avoiding

an embarrassing hearing regarding a senior staffer.

The characters on "The West Wing" resemble many of the unknown heroes

I've encountered working in and around government: The career people at

the Army Communications and Electronics Command, who fought a lengthy, wrenching

political battle to allow Army logistics modernization to go forward; or

those who sounded the alarm about the Year 2000 bug and then worked the

long hours to solve the problem; or those professionals at the Air Force

Standard Systems Group and at the General Services Administration who look

for new ways to get the government good deals on information technology.

They are the reality of the federal work force.

But career IT folks, and many others whose examples could be cited,

are an unknown and unappreciated reality. For Americans outside the Beltway

who believe Washington is all callousness, sleaze and sloth, "The West Wing"

provides a message that comes closer to the reality I have experienced than

the one Hollywood typically portrays.

That's good news for feds and, above all, for the health of our democracy.

— Kelman was the administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy

from 1993 to 1997. He is now Weatherhead Professor of Public Management

at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.


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