Leadership: Why not Bartlett, or Vinick, for president?

Often I ponder that there are few, if any, worthy models of bosses in popular media, especially in television. This realization struck me several years ago when a friend and I were working on a book on leadership (never published). Models of action are very powerful things. When people see other people doing things, people copy the behaviors, even unconsciously — ask any parent whose kid suddenly informed the in-laws or PTA of the parent’s ability to cuss in a fashion that would embarrass most sailors.

So, the models of what we see as bosses probably affect what we actually get in the workplace. This should trouble you: There are not a lot of good models of good bosses in any medium.

West Wing, 6th season DVD

In the comic strips, for example, we have Dagwood Bumstead and his boss Mr. Dithers, who wars with his wife, who seems to be an authoritarian despot who physically abuses his workers. Or in more modern strips, we have Dilbert’s pointy-haired boss, who is an incompetent at all human functions, and most management functions as well. Don’t get me going on Beetle Bailey with incompetents all the way up the line from Sgt. Snorkle.

On television we’ve had incompetents and yellers for years. Phil Silvers played Sgt. Bilko. In every incarnation of Lucille Ball’s programs, a boob boss was required — from Ricky Ricardo’s Cuban temper flareups through Gale McGee’s bosses whose manifold, manifest foibles made them great comic foils. Homer Simpson’s ultimate boss, Mr. Burns, anyone?

Generally, even where someone plays a pretty good boss — Crockett’s and Tubbs’ boss on the old Miami Vice, or the lab heads in any of the current CSI series — there is another boss above them who has some massive failing, or a vendetta against the good team.

Exceptions are rare. Some of the Star Treks did better than others. Jean-Luc Picard in Star Trek: Next Generation, was ideal as boss in many ways. It was particularly interesting to watch him give his “No. 1,” Riker, first choice in missions on foreign planets. The character Picard had a particular way of showing confidence in subordinates, in subtly demanding the best from them. He’d ask for opinions or ideas on what to do next; when someone came up with a workable idea, or even only the best idea of an apparently unworkable lot, Picard would look them in the eye and delegate to the team the authority to make it happen: “Make it so,” he’d say.

If only we could make it so.

Then there was The West Wing. I think it premiered when I was teaching at night. For whatever reason, I didn’t see a single episode until reruns shortly before the second season. I caught new episodes almost never. Most of what I saw was in rerun. Martin Sheen’s character of Josiah Bartlett was a flawed president. Errors were made, as they say. Bartlett usually confessed to the errors. Flawed as he was, he was human and warm, and Bartlett made one yearn for an elected official who made it a principle to act wisely and well, often, rather than one who too often acted for political gain, leaving the staff scrambling to explain what happened, and why it wasn’t a breach of trust on several different levels. (No, you probably haven’t figured out which of my old bosses I’m talking about, so quit trying.)

Martin Sheen as Pres. Josiah Bartlett, West Wing

Eventually I had to stop watching West Wing. It hurt too much to see people doing rational things, saying wise things, even when they were pursuing personal political power. Hollywood writes better scripts than Washington acts. The difference and dissonance between the screen and life made me wince, kept me up nights, and so I stopped watching.

Then in reruns, I caught an episode named “In God We Trust.” Alan Alda was playing a guy running to succeed Bartlett. Things were looking good for him, other than Bartlett’s people had the long knives out for the guy, until the issue of the candidate’s faith came up. Alda’s Sen. Arnold Vinick was not a church goer — I think about 75% of the senators fit that category when I first spent time with them. But it wasn’t much of an issue. Churches didn’t have positions on building the Interstate Highway System, and senators might be expected to stay away from venues where people would either unfairly praise or unfairly condemn their views on the Vietnam War.

So, Sen. Vinick didn’t know what to do.

Alan Alda as Sen. Arnold Vinick, West Wing

Vinick — a Republican, as I recall — ends up at the White House for some meeting or other, and he and President Bartlett head to the kitchen for ice cream. Vinick explains that he hasn’t attended church for about a decade, since his wife’s death. From this blog, stereoroid.com, over a year ago, I got the dialog — good advice for other candidates about religion and campaigns; I’ll include the comments from stereoroid.com:

The question of whether to hide his “lapse” from the voters quickly leads to a discussion on health, and President Bartlet’s battle with Multiple Sclerosis, which he did hide. “A speeded-up version of aging” is what he calls it, before noting that previous US Presidents had concealed their medical issues – Lincoln, Roosevelt, Kennedy and others. Vinick concedes the point, then goes on to describe his position on religion;

“One Christmas my wife gave me a very old edition of the King James Bible. 17th Century. It was a real find, for a book collector. It was a thrill, just to hold. Then I read it.”
“You can’t take it literally.”
“Yeah, well, that’s what my priest friends kept telling me. The more I read it, the less I could believe it. I could not believe there was a God who said that the penalty for working on the Sabbath was death. I couldn’t believe there was a God who said that the penalty for adultery was death.”
“I’m more of a New Testament man, myself.”
“I couldn’t believe there was a God who had no penalty for Slavery. The Bible has no problem with Slavery at all. Lincoln could’ve used a little help from the Bible.”
“You think Lincoln was an atheist?”
“I hope not. That would mean all those reference to God were purely political.”
“He didn’t make any until he started running for office.”
“He certainly was a doubter.”
“What about you?”
“Are you going to try to save my soul?”
“Let’s just say that I struggled for a long time, with that book, and finally just gave up the struggle.”

Bartlet goes on to offer Vinick advice which appears to suggest that he did not need religion to do the job of President:

“The only thing you can pray for in this job is for the strength to get through the day. You can try coffee if you want. Prayer works better for me. Try the Pistachio.”

The result? Vinick walks out to face the press, and excoriates them for focusing on religion:

“I don’t see how you can have separation of Church and State in this Government if you have to pass a religious test to get in this Government… if you demand expressions of religious faith from politicans, you are just begging to be lied to. They will all lie to you, or a lot of them will, and it will be the easiest lie they ever had to tell to get your votes.
“So, every day until the end of this campaign, I’ll answer any question anyone has on Government. But if you have a question on religion, please, go to church. Thank you.”

If anyone still has any questions on why I hold The West Wing in such esteem, even well after the departure of creator Aaron Sorkin, I could explain in great detail, but one need look no further than this. A crucial point about separation of Church and State, made in a dramatic and creative fashion – I can’t ask for much more from modern popular culture.

I was reminded of this post, which has sat in my draft file for over nine months, when I heard that Mike Huckabee preached in New Hampshire yesterday. Then in e-mail, I got the speech from a friend, thinking along the same lines. I’ve often thought of Alda’s character watching Mitt Romney unfairly dragged over the coals for other peoples’ misunderstandings of his faith. And I’ve wondered how Rudolph Giuliani could stand for office in a party where the last winner claimed Jesus as his favorite philosopher.

I pray for a candidate with the sense and gumption of Josiah Bartlett, or short of that, Arnold Vinick, especially with regard to religion, the First Amendment, Article VI, and campaigning. In the elections of 1796 and 1800, Thomas Jefferson refused to answer questions about faith, and after the hammer job the Federalists (led by Alexander Hamilton) did on Jefferson, according to Dumas Malone more than half the American electorate was convinced Thomas Jefferson was an atheist. Despite that conviction, or perhaps because of it, they voted for Jefferson over Adams in 1800. (The election went to the House of Representatives, where Hamilton saved things for Jefferson by eating his words, but we don’t need to go into that right now.)

We act the way models in our mind act.

I wish there were more good bosses than Jean-Luc Picard on TV. I wish the candidates were required to watch The West Wing.

5 Responses to Leadership: Why not Bartlett, or Vinick, for president?

  1. Ed Darrell says:

    That’s the sentiment people had about John Edwards in the primaries in 2004. It’s the sentiment thousands have today about Barack Obama.

    Martin Sheen has been out campaigning. We don’t have a real Bartlett, but we do have Edwards, Obama, Richardson and Clinton on the Democratic side, and John McCain on the Republican side can do a good Vinick impersonation.

    There is real excitement in this campaign in the U.S. God knows we need to change things; people are agitating for change, and working to see it through.

    That’s real. I hope the feelings stay.


  2. hoverfrog says:

    I would vote for Bartlett. I would emigrate and become an American citizen just to vote for Bartlett. What a shame it is that he’s fictional.


  3. mpb says:

    Any chance your question can be re-phrased as would you rather have a parent as a parent or as a “friend”? There’s a nostalgia for standing up for what’s right, but I don’t see many who actually do it. Genuine friendship is invaluable but genuine friends lead each other together.

    Leadership is testable, not a matter of faith. The idea that “I Know, by divine right” and everyone else is clueless is fairly pervasive now.


  4. mpb says:

    What timing, EdD–
    Military Journal: “Leadership Lessons” of Capt. Kirk


  5. discordianstooge says:

    Outer space tends to bring out the best in leaders. Mal Reynolds from “Firefly” was a guy I wouldn’t mind working for.


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