Jewish World Review March 4, 2004 / 11 Adar 5764
In this instance, life should imitate art
Halfway through last week's episode of NBC's "West Wing," I was jerked alert by a scene that, as network promos say, was ripped from the headlines.
It was a scene that illustrated how much easier it is for a fictitious president like Jed Bartlet, played by Martin Sheen, to behave like a statesman than it is for a real one.
The issue was school vouchers. The District of Columbia's Democratic mayor and the president of its school board had broken party ranks to ally with congressional Republicans behind an experimental program to help low-income D.C. pupils attend private schools at taxpayer expense.
Hard to imagine? Not at all. Up to that point, the TV program matched real life. Amid heated controversy, the Republican Congress in January approved a $14 million voucher program to enable hundreds of D.C. schoolchildren to attend private schools at taxpayer expense this coming fall.
The bill, supported by President Bush, also was supported by Mayor Anthony Williams and School Board President Peggy Cooper Cafritz. Both are black Democrats but also fiercely independent enough to shrug off the disapproval of national Democrats when they see a chance to get something anything! out of Congress to help D.C. pupils.
Now President Bartlet is a Democrat and, like most Washington Democrats, he would rather fall facedown on hot knives than give up his opposition to school vouchers.
But the mayor is resolute. He's ready to accept help for his city's students anywhere he can, even from Republicans.
So President Bartlet plays what he thinks will be an ace in the hole. He invites his college-aged personal aide, Charlie Young, played by Dule Hill, into the room and asks what high school he went to. Charlie responds with "Roosevelt," a D.C. public high school. Bartlet smirks, satisfied that such a fine young man came out of a public school. The mayor, unmoved, asks Charlie what high school he would have gone to if he had his wishes. Charley responds, "Gonzaga," naming a well-respected Catholic high school. Why? "Never a shooting," he says. "No metal detectors. Everybody there goes to college. ..."
Asked what he thinks of the proposed voucher program, he says, "I wish they had one when I was in school."
Bartlet looks into Charlie's eyes, then he turns to the mayor. "Your honor," he says, "I'm going to need your help putting out some fires within the party on this one." The mayor is delighted. The president has changed his mind and is willing to spend serious political capital for vouchers.
The vignette made me wonder: Will we ever see a real-life Democratic president willing to go up against his party's base, particularly the teachers union, to show the sort of statesmanlike independence that Bartlet did?
I called Lawrence O'Donnell, a "West Wing" consulting producer and former aide to the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) It turned out that he scripted the voucher episode. He was inspired by his Washington experiences. He was in the room, for example, when President Bill Clinton put out fires with the unions and House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt over the North American Free Trade Agreement bill.
But O'Donnell, who also helps hold up the liberal end of "The McLaughlin Group," told me he also was inspired by his earlier experiences as a substitute school teacher in the Boston area.
Experience in really run-down schools, where even the teachers had lost hope, changed O'Donnell's mind about vouchers.
"I saw kids academically dying before my eyes," he said. "I found it too painful to actually look in their eyes and say, "No," even if there is a better school around the corner, there are policy reasons why I cannot tell you to go there. Or help you to go there."
Polls show most black Americans, statistically the Democratic Party's most loyal constituency, support vouchers like D.C.'s mayor and school board president do.
For example, 57 percent of blacks and 60 percent of Hispanic-Americans supported vouchers, compared to only 52 percent of whites, in a 2002 poll by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a Washington-based think tank on black-oriented issues. "Black parents are more likely to be seeking a change for the better for their kids," said David Bositis, senior political analyst at the center. "A larger percentage of white parents are satisfied with their schools."
That's why it is fun to imagine party leaders who, on an issue like this one, are willing to open the door, at least wide enough for some experimentation. When old ideas have played out, it makes sense to try some news ones, even if they come from your political opponents.
Otherwise, as John F. Kennedy once said, sometimes party loyalty asks too much.
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