I'm going to posit at the start here that Aaron Sorkin is the finest screenwriter working today. And I say that not having seen a single episode of "The West Wing." That's not because I avoided it, I just rarely watch network programs other than news, and I have come to realize I really missed something. I came to Sorkin late, but I'd like to use as evidence a couple of speeches he wrote for the movie "The American President" and a wonderful series called "The Newsroom."
They sum up how I feel about the country of my birth, it's current state, and my profession. To set the stage, the "American President" is Michael Douglas and his primary foe in the Senate is played by the marvelous Richard Dreyfus. They are obviously a Democrat and a Republican, but that's not as important as the speech itself.
"America isn't easy. America is advanced citizenship. You've gotta want it bad, 'cause it's gonna put up a fight. It's gonna say, 'You want free speech? Let's see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who's standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours.' You want to claim this land as the land of the free? Then the symbol of your country cannot just be a flag. The symbol also has to be one of its citizens exercising his right to burn that flag in protest. Now show me that, defend that, celebrate that in your classrooms. Then, you can stand up and sing about the land of the free.
I've known Bob Rumson for years, and I've been operating under the assumption that the reason Bob devotes so much time and energy to shouting at the rain was that he simply didn't get it. Well, I was wrong. Bob's problem isn't that he doesn't get it. Bob's problem is that he can't sell it! We have serious problems to solve, and we need serious people to solve them. And whatever your particular problem is, I promise you, Bob Rumson is not the least bit interested in solving it. He is interested in two things, and two things only: making you afraid of it, and telling you who's to blame for it. That, ladies and gentlemen, is how you win elections."
Let's repeat here...
"You want free speech? Let's see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who's standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours."
And that's where we are today. If Disney doesn't like a law you passed and says so publicly, you don't debate them on the merits, you try to punish them with new legislation aimed at them. If you disapprove of a policy, like aid to Ukraine, you don't stand up and have an honest debate about the limits of American power and influence, you try to imply the aggressor was right and a country led by a Jewish President is somehow a hotbed of nazis? Now, both subjects are legitimate and worthy of debate. As we learned in Viet Nam, we can't forever defend a country that won't defend itself, which certainly doesn't describe the forces of Ukraine. And when it comes to sociological issues, there is indeed a fine line between explanation and advocacy. It's a line that must be trod carefully.
But we aren't having those debates. We lie, we mischaracterize and demonize on both sides. All gay folks are, of course, "groomers," a word recently invented to scare the bejabbers out of you. All Latin American immigrants are a threat, despite the labor they have always provided. They can't vote or get welfare, by the way, but they are "replacing" you all the same.
And conversely, however misguided the debt limit fight is, and it is astonishingly misguided, Republicans are right that we are indeed outspending our income by incomprehensible amounts. We once had the wherewithal to control spending and tax wisely enough to actually run an annual surplus, just 25 or so years ago. It took the combined efforts of both Democrats and Republicans. We didn't retry bad ideas like supply-side economics, but two Presidents, Bush and Clinton, had the guts to actually tax enough to actually pay for what we need and both parties tried to control those needs to a reasonable degree. Yeah, there's that word reasonable again. Bush essentially lost a bid for a second term because of it. Students, that is called political courage and should be an addendum to JFK's Pulitzer Prize-winning book.
But to threaten to bankrupt the country if you don't get your way? Madness.
That, though, was also the beginning, or I should say the revival of the political divide that's pretty much been there since the New Deal. Now, we have had a rolling referendum on the budget for years. The public has made it clear they like the idea of taking care of our elderly and needy. Not make them rich or encourage sloth, but provide shelter and keep the wolf away from the door. Again, another fine line to tread. The public also has made clear their desire for a military second to none, which despite the rhetoric you hear, we continue to have.
But that brings me to my second Sorkin moment, and maybe his most famous. The press has bifurcated like our politics and we see the advent of cable networks full of full-throated and sometimes dishonest, political advocates. Whether you watch Fox or MSNBC, you will hear the politics you like, and in the case of craven politicians like a governor I could name, you actually salute and carry out the TV host's wishes. Again, to be fair, The Democratic politicians who appear regularly on Joy Reid's and other programs are in the same partisan boat. The actual network journalists still around try often enough, but we are a long way from the icons of old. When I was growing up, Edward R. Murrow was still around along with Cronkite, Huntley and Brinkley, Howard K. Smith, Reasoner and others. Such was the influence and trust, that when Walter Cronkite returned from Viet Nam with a pessimistic view of the war, LBJ was reputed to have said, "If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost the country."
That was summed up in Sorkin's most controversial bit of writing, delivered by the redoubtable Jeff Daniels in a woefully underrated bit of TV genius called "The Newsroom."
My chest swells whenever I watch that again, because of the message. We electrified the country, built giant hydroelectric dams, national parks and massive skyscrapers. We conquered space, sent men to the moon and developed cures and vaccines for polio, aids, covid and more. We developed great literature and practically invented film as an art form. We practically invented the middle class as well. We beat back fascism and militarism around the world and held communism in check, though too many people who throw the word around today have never cracked a book to learn the real meaning.
And as Sorkin said, we did that because we were informed, not propagandized. Too many groups have learned what Goebbels was so good at, and now millions of Americans have mistaken notions about our history, our Constitution and the simple, observable state of our country. It isn't a disaster, though politicians would like you to believe that. There are real problems though, that are tough to tackle and require a joint effort.
But the old observation that politics is the art of compromise smacks of surrender to too many on both sides today. We have come to accept gridlock as the unavoidable state of things and forget what I pointed out a couple of essays ago. We broke the stalemate on votes for women, Social Security, Medicare, civil rights and more. These were things once thought impossible, but they were done. Really, kids, ask your history teacher, if she feels brave enough to answer.
Now, he is part of the Texas Outlaw Writers, and if this doesn't pan out, the outlaw part will still work as he will indeed resort to robbing banks.