'West Wing' does feds right
- By Steve Kelman
- May 29, 2000
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.