Claire Handscombe on The West Wing
Editor’s Note: Today’s journal entry is an interview with our editor, Claire Handscombe. She’s worked behind the scenes improving nearly everything we’ve published to date. In our work of healing, she brings a unique perspective: she’s an avid reader, and a beautiful writer herself. And she somehow convincingly claims Brussels, London, and Washington, DC each as her home.
We first talked about the work of Liberatus walking down the beach on the Delaware coast during a church community group getaway—which sounds so Billy Graham-ish, but it’s true.
Americans love it when people from other countries love the United States, and when you talk to Claire you realize that there really is potential for goodness in our nation’s capital that, in our cynicism, I at least sometimes fail to see.
One of her published works is the book Walk With Us: How the West Wing Changed Our Lives, and the essays she compiled for it from viewers around the world are the subject of today’s journal entry. If you’re like me, though, and you’ve completely missed this cultural experience, stay with us: reading the book will deepen your perspective on healing in American politics, which means that her subtitle is correct: The West Wing—like any great work of fiction—has changed us, and is changing us still.
-Caleb Paxton, Liberatus Founder
As I read the book, there were several quotes that stood out to me, and I want to focus the questions on how we can connect the values of this fictional story to the way we govern in current times in Washington. But first, can you tell us how the idea for the book came about and process you went through to create it?
If you had told me ten years ago that a TV show could change anyone’s life, I would have laughed at you. But it’s because of The West Wing that I started writing again and moved to Washington, DC. I knew from my interactions with the fan community that I wasn’t the only one whose life had been changed in some way by the show – a lot of people have been inspired to go into politics because of it, but I suspected there were people out there, like me, with different stories, too.
I’d been toying with the idea of a tribute anthology for a while, and started the process by writing a piece for my literary journalism class. I put out a call for submissions via Twitter and various writers’ magazines and websites asking for essays and for people willing to be interviewed. Then I chose and edited the best essays, and used my favourite quotes, grouping them under various themes.
As a writer of fiction, I’m sure you often think about how creating fictional characters can tell us something about who we are as people. In turn, ideally that will change our lives for the better. Early in the book you note that The West Wing “refused to talk down to its viewers. Instead, the show drew them into a complex world that they often knew nothing about, and somehow made it mesmerising.” When the problems in government seem so complex, how do we elevate the dialogue and communicate in a way that draws people into a larger narrative than what they may be used to hearing?
One of the strengths of The West Wing – particularly seasons 1-4, which were written by its original creator, Aaron Sorkin – is that its characters were three-dimensional. Though the main characters are Democrats, Republicans are not painted as evil or stupid villains. They’re often smart and compelling and noble. That actually makes for much better fiction, and it makes for better politics. We are all human; we all have strengths, weaknesses, blind spots. It’s too easy to stand and yell at each other over the internet or in real life and assume the “other side” can be easily dismissed.
There’s an episode in season 1 that could be seen as a manifesto for the show. The staff have got bogged down in some minutiae; there’s a damaging memo about campaign strategy circulating, and they spend a lot of time in crisis management. The President has been timid in his agenda because he wants to be re-elected. At the end of the episode, chief of staff, Leo, makes the following declaration.
“We’re gonna lose some of these battles, and we might even lose the White House, but we’re not gonna be threatened by issues. We’re gonna put them front and center. We’re gonna raise the level of public debate in this country, and let that be our legacy.”
Imagine if that was the goal of those in power in 2017! Not to make calculations based on winning or losing, not to waste time on trivialities and point-scoring, but to put issues front and centre, to debate at a high, educated, intelligent level, using facts. To be more concerned about the issues facing America than about who will win the next election.
One of the writers notes that “Aaron Sorkin and his team of writers presented their audience with precious gifts: to be able to think and to feel while watching television. To improve relationships with ourselves through fictional holograms. To create something tangible out of something imaginary.” Considering political communication causes us to think and to feel, how can followers of Jesus craft messages that point our thoughts and affections toward the Kingdom of Heaven, when we are currently living by faith and hope?
What made The West Wing come alive was its characters. People, in other words. In our communication, and in our politics and lives in general, we must never lose sight of the fact that it is people who matter. That’s a Kingdom value, too. It is stories that make these people feel real to us and to our audience. It’s much better to tell a story than to use abstract language – hearers will remember that, and they’ll remember how the story made them feel. It’s so vital to appeal to both head and heart in our communication.
Liberatus is a journal about bringing Truth and Beauty to American politics, because our actions will never change until we value something greater than we do now. One of the writers illustrates some of the practical implications of Truth and Beauty when saying that “The West Wing made government meetings exciting, bipartisan compromise a noble satisfaction, and reasoned debate on the issues downright sexy. This was a show that upheld ideals and then put them within reach, without being syrupy or compromising complexity or ambiguity. The show’s White House looked like the way things should be—could be, even. In the early 2000s that seemed more important than ever. It was political candy like I’d never seen before.”
So many people start out on Capitol Hill thinking it’s going to be this way, but get worn out when they find it isn’t. When you’re creating characters that live this way, what’s their true north that helps them stay consistent, living out their highest ideals, no matter what their story throws at them?
The thing that forms you is often the thing that sustains you. Maybe it’s the example of a parent or a historical figure who effected change; maybe it’s the difference that a policy has or could have in your life or in the life of someone close to you. Maybe it’s a theological conviction or just the profound belief at the gut level that things could be and ought to be different.
The show was about team as much as it was about anything else. (That’s part of why it was so successful, I think. You don’t have to be into politics to enjoy it, because it’s primarily about relationships.) I think that if any of them had started to lose their way, the others would have pulled them back in. That’s one of the keys.
In my limited knowledge of crafting stories, one of the points I’ve learned is that in order to get a character to take a desired action or change their values, you have to put him or her through pain. But in real life, do you think it’s possible to choose higher values without going through tough circumstances? Can a person have a true north or a deeply held set of values without life forcing them there?
That’s such an interesting question. What we go through definitely shapes us. My favourite character, Josh, is fiercely loyal. We find out in an early episode that when he was a child he ran out of a burning house while his sister did not, and she died. As a result, he “doesn’t leave people”. We are definitely all shaped by our circumstances. But I don’t know that it has to be painful circumstance. Another favourite character of mine, Donna, had a phenomenal high school English teacher who went above and beyond the call of duty. In a scene that never fails to make me tear up, she is speaking to her on the phone. “I’m in the Oval Office, and it’s because of you.”
It’s possible that those of us who come from more privileged backgrounds need something to happen to us, or to someone close to us, in order to be shaken from our complacency, from our belief that basically life is okay. The American Dream and the Hollywood version of that – the happy ending – can teach us unrealistic expectations, though for many of us who are more privileged those expectations are often met. I think that anyone who is not white, male, straight, or able-bodied might have a very different view of the world, and that’s partly why diversity in political parties is so vital.
I also think that is where faith comes in. My faith very much informs my politics, and it also teaches me compassion for people and the importance of looking out for the poor and voiceless. Those are values I hold deeply and, when it comes to politics, they’re my true north.
Finally, you came to Washington, DC in part because of The West Wing. What’s ahead for you professionally, and do you think the show is still driving your love of this city? How have you been able to sustain that excitement personally, when every two years seems like it’s bringing another change election?
The West Wing reignited my love of writing, and for the first time this year I get to do that full-time, so that’s very exciting. I’m hoping that my novel will sell soon – there’s a fandom theme in that novel, so it very much draws on my love of the show. I’ve also got another West Wing project up my sleeve and a couple of other novels in the works, as well as the freelance journalism which will hopefully become my bread and butter. I’m developing a class on how to make art of your obsession and hope to teach that and other classes at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda.
The West Wing tapped into what had been my long-dormant interest in politics. I nerd out over elections the way some people nerd out over the Superbowl. I love them – the pre-game analysis, the post-game analysis, the adrenaline, all of it. That said, this past election has changed that. I don’t want to tune into the political podcasts I used to gobble up. I feel like DC has been tarnished for me.
But at the same time, my love of the city has grown more complex and rich – I love it now not only because of its beauty and because it feels like I’m on a West Wing set but also because of all it has given me, because it is home, because I have my favourite restaurants, local bookstores whose staff know my name, a wonderful roommate, a great church community, fabulous friends. There’s a terrific literary community here, and it might not be popular to say so, but I also love living in one of the most highly educated cities in the world. It feels like the perfect city for me to live in. It has all the things I love about capitals – great theatre and cinema, great food, a cosmopolitan feel – while still being manageable, clean, and walkable. And I love mixing with the powerful and wannabe powerful politicos or even just overhearing them at a nearby table. If nothing else, there’s great inspiration for stories there.
The West Wing feels like it’s part of my DNA, part of my story now. It’s what led me here and I’ll be forever grateful for that.
WEEKLY ACTION ITEM:
This week, focus on how you can elevate political debate. For help on how to go about this, check out the Liberatus journal series, A Better Story. Whether you're writing a speech or a tweet, a letter or a set of talking points, scrap your first draft and rewrite it, making sure you aren't placing your fellow Americans as the antagonists in the story you're telling.
If you want to take these ideas a step further, apply to write with the Liberatus journal community in 2017.