I have never watched The West Wing. Apparently making this admission on Twitter was a mistake and what people heard was that I had never breathed oxygen or drunk water.
So fundamental is this show in the psyche of the average politico, the fact that when it was on TV I was largely first raving and latterly rearing children – so watching a lot of In The Night Garden on CBeebies instead – is unfathomable to some. The Twitter outrage forced my hand, so when I found myself laid up in bed unwell, I thought, like all sane people do, let Twitter outrage be your guide.
I am now two seasons into The West Wing and boy am I glad I didn’t watch it sooner. If I had watched this midway through Donald Trump’s presidency the suspension of disbelief would have been too great even for my imagination. The representation of a noble US administration who are flawed but fundamentally good, mixed with the suggestion that there is even the possibility of believing in hope at every level of politics, would have seemed far–fetched.
It is hard to believe that yesterday a page turned, where the schmaltz and sheer hope of a show like The West Wing has an outside chance of at least reflecting a true story.
I was in the hospital following the birth of my second son on the day Barack Obama was elected president. I drew the flimsy curtain around my bed, put on the telly hanging by a metal arm above my head, held my baby boy to my chest and I wept with the possibility of hope in the world. The midwife pulled the curtain back, “Got a bit of baby blues, my love?” I just nodded, not being able to explain it was joyful disbelief as I watched this man address a huge Washington crowd in a warm winter coat.
I should feel the same now, but I don’t. Something is holding me back from the unbridled joy that bound out of me in 2008. Perhaps we can put a bit of it down to hormones and the adrenaline of delivering a 10lb 10oz baby. I think it is more likely that it is the searing, burning pain of the disappointment of politics in the last few years that keeps my hope in check.
Competing with the hope is the fear of how quickly things can turn ugly. There is a world where people find comfort, not in brilliantly written dramas about good guys, but instead in fear and hatred. The last few years, and certainly the last few weeks, in US politics has shown that hate sells.
Lots of people here and abroad turned a blind eye to that hate and allowed understood norms about what was good, what was proper, to be unwritten almost overnight. That apathy, that knee bending to injustice didn’t go away overnight as Trump boarded a plane to Florida. We have got to continue this clean-up because I don’t want my hope to be dashed again. This will all take work.
Perhaps the hope is simply smouldering in my belly this week, not bursting out in spluttering coughs as it did before, because President Biden and vice president Kamala Harris have taken a calm but firm hand to a tiller that was spinning out of control. The calm, considered, reasoned approach by the new incumbents of Pennsylvania Avenue is not merely business-like or without emotion, they are in fact full of the empathy and understanding that people want to feel steady again, that the deck was shaking and people want to find their feet. They will start dancing once they can stand properly, but we are not there yet.
Yes Biden-Harris is a joyful pairing, yes they represent hope and a scene change so dramatic that it’s hard to believe it’s even the same play. They do all this with calm and dignity and recognition that the world is very much in mourning. It is right that we go into this, the next phase of American politics, with calmness and a willingness to do the work to keep things on an even keel.
Steady as she goes is what is needed for a country and a world that feels as if it has been holding its breath for weeks, walking on eggshells, too scared to spark a flame. Just the act of breathing out feels like an unrivalled rush of joy.
Steady and calm might not make a great season finale of The West Wing. It’s not my normal style – I have big feelings and I show them. But quiet relief and determination are in order. Let us make sure that we never have our hopes dashed quite so dramatically again, because sadly we can’t just rewrite the script in real life or take comfort in our favourite old reruns.
Jess Phillips is shadow minister for domestic violence and safeguarding and the Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley