October 21, 2007

Leo McGarry, Chief of Staff

For many in my generation, the TV show The West Wing has been a guide through the wilderness of today's politics, thanks to the brilliant synergy of director Thomas Schlamme, screenwriter and creator Aaron Sorkin, and the entire cast.

It's great political storytelling. Sorkin creates a fully functioning family that fights, compromises, and celebrates victory and mourns defeat--together. Here DC is the company town and the White House is HQ. The office never sleeps, no matter how many well-placed memos Josh Lyman writes.

And when the two oldest characters fight, the junior staff might as well be flies on the wall. President Jed Bartlet and Chief of Staff Leo McGarry fill the roles of elder statesmen in Sorkin's world. As I think about the role of the several chiefs of staff who served with Governor Lawton Chiles, I think often about the post. Seems to be McGarry got it right.

"So, my friend, if you wanna start using the American military strength as the arm of the Lord, you can do that. We're the only superpower left, you can conquer the world like Charlemagne, but you better be prepared to kill everyone, and you better start with me, 'cause I will raise-up an army against you and I will beat you."

- Leo McGarry, "A Proportional Response"

"If we're going to walk into walls I want us running into them full speed. We're going to lose some of these battles, and we might even lose the White House, but we're not going to be threatened by issues. We're going to bring 'em front and center. We're going to raise the level of public debate in this country, and let that be our legacy."

- Leo McGarry, "Let Bartlet Be Bartlet"

"Because I'm tired of it. Year after year after year after year, having to choose between the lesser of who cares. Of trying to get myself excited about the candidate who can speak in complete sentences. Of setting the bar so low I can hardly look at it. They say a good man can't get elected, president, I don't believe that, do you?"

- Leo McGarry, "In the Shadow of Two Gunmen"

McGarry found Bartlet, taught him how to run for office on a national stage, to lean on his political principles, his economic genius, and his soaring oration--not just his New Hampshire background. To pick a phrase from a later season of the show, he made Bartlet "good for all time zones." A brand. A name and a cause that wedded McGarry to his job and the constant fight to "Let Bartlet Be Bartlet" in spite of sagging public approval, Republican attacks, and the exhaustion of a 24/7 week. The job never ends, even after the collapse of his marriage.

Josh, Toby, Sam, and C.J. may have joined the team later, but McGarry is the one who wrote the presidential campaign's strategy on a napkin: "Bartlet for America." He gave it voice, credibility,and grativas all the way from the New Hampshire's January snows to the summer Democratic National Convention's bright lights and balloons. He gave it voice until Bartlet found his.

In the Third Season, the episode "Bartlet for America" puts you in the room with McGarry's race of emotions. As a Christmas gift, Bartlet gives McGarry a framed copy of the famous napkin. The crush of nostalgia and satisfaction brings Leo to tears. He takes a seat, alone. The screen fades to black. The late actor John Spencer doesn't just sell it; he lives it and lets it happen.

Unlike Bob Graham and Reubin Askew, Lawton Chiles never seemed to harbor presidential ambitions. His most stories political campaigns made for edge-of-the seat cinema nonetheless. These were underdog Florida-wide campaigns chock full of personality, drive, and tables of finger lickin' hot dogs and chicken--enough to make Bartlet for America seem like week-old oatmeal.

When old friend Buddy MacKay first met with Lawton Chiles in 1990 to try to persuade him to get back into politics and run for governor, Chiles said, "you're crazy." Then Chiles said he would only do it if contributions were limited to $100 a head. MacKay said, "you're crazy." The Martinez administration's failures, an inspiring speech from Vaclav Havel, and other factors pushed him, too. Rhea Chiles said it was like watching an old outboard motor get tugged and tugged until finally it started to purr. And the $100 a head contributions continued in the successful Chiles-MacKay 1994 bid for re-election.

Multiple chiefs of staff served under Gov. Chiles. When the governor died, his old friend Dexter Douglass remarked, "Lawton was always Lawton."

Thanks to a friend for the choice West Wing quotes. Godspeed, John Spencer.

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