By Jennifer Tennant
Faces blurry with a few minutes of sleep after a long day, my eight-year-old daughters clomp down the stairs. “Mommy, the TV’s too loud.” I pause the show, tuck them back into bed, and turn the volume down a few notches — the soaring crescendo of The West Wing’s opening theme had pierced through their brief slumber. I watched this show when it first aired, and then bought and binged-watched the entire series on DVD. I returned to the show during the 2016 election cycle, a good luck charm that didn’t come through. Even though I own the complete series and these characters have become beloved familiars, I had to take a multi-year break from the show after the outcome of the election. It felt like salt in the wound, the could-have-been that made the actual unbearable.
I started re-watching The West Wing again a few weeks ago, as a gesture of hope. The West Wing centers on the administration of President Josiah “Jed” Bartlet and aired from 1999 – 2006. The staffers in the Bartlet administration are highly intelligent, ethical, strive to do better, and want to bring America closer to its ideals. Some viewers found its characters pedantic and claimed that it painted a too-rosy picture of the inner workings of Washington. Even though that idealism can be hard to witness in the current climate, I would take the earnest nerds of The West Wing any day over the venal dealmakers of House of Cards and the amoral doofuses of Veep. It inspires me both in real life and on television to see brilliant people working hard at things that matter – public policy, justice, art. It also inspires me to see humans make mistakes, take responsibility, and grow.
In the episodes “Manchester, part 1” and “Manchester, part 2,” we have recently learned that President Bartlet had withheld information of his diagnosis of multiple sclerosis, a degenerative neurological disease, from the country and his staff during his candidacy and the first years of his presidency. Toby, a senior staffer, had figured out that something was amiss since the vice president was performing campaign-like activities to test the waters, even though it was Bartlet who was supposed to run for reelection, not him. After following this line of questioning to its conclusion, Toby is told about the president’s diagnosis, that he had made a deal with the first lady to only serve one term, and that only 17 people in the world knew this information. Virtually all the senior staff of the White House were in the dark, let alone the millions who voted for him.
“Manchester, part 2” addresses both the feelings of shock and betrayal that the senior staff feel in the face of this news as well as the fact that Bartlet refuses to apologize for this lie of omission. Bartlet has not apologized to the country or to his staff for keeping this secret from them. During this episode, they have brought in a team of political consultants to help with the flagging reelection campaign in the wake of this revelation, and that team has suggested that there should be an apology to the public. Jed is hesitant because of his ego and the inability to confront the fact that he had done wrong. His staff is holding the line of “President Bartlet isn’t going to apologize, so let’s move on,” but his lack of apology and seeming lack of remorse for his lie has angered and untethered each of the senior staff. Doug, one of the political consultants, confronts Toby about this when he says:
You guys are so pissed at him you don’t even know it. You’re more pissed at him than the press is. You’re more pissed at him than the party is. You’re so pissed at him, you’re pissed at me. Cause if he hadn’t lied, you could’ve run the campaign you always wanted to run instead of a bunch of people coming in here and teaching you how not to bother anybody.
What can this fictional president’s apology or lack thereof tell us about the power of public and private apologies, for both the apology-giver and the apology-receivers? What can people gain from apologizing? What do people think they can lose? In her book, “Why won’t you apologize?” Dr. Harriet Lerner says that “to offer a serious apology, you need the inner strength to allow yourself to feel vulnerable. You need to be in touch with both your competence and your limitations. When you have fairly solid self-esteem you can admit to being in the wrong, without feeling like you’re weakening the fabric of the self, or losing something to the other person.” Apologizing, particularly for a very important matter, can feel scary, but a lack of an apology can often create an emotional wall between two parties. There are different levels of scale and vulnerability in public apologies and private apologies. The public apologizer shares less personal vulnerability than the person trying to mend a private relationship, but has to admit wrong to a much larger number of people. As Ashraf Rushdy states in “The art of the public apology,” the point of a public apology is to “provide public personalities an opportunity to regain public approval.” Even though public apologies might be a bit more transactional than private ones, both types of apologies “reveal and alert us to the limits of what is acceptable.”
Although he gained his fame on a reality television show, the Donald Trump presidency is very real. His lies and his lack of remorse for those lies feel like other physical entities that occupy his White House. In July 2020, The Washington Post published an article that revealed that Trump had made more than 20,000 false or misleading statements since taking office. These lies and his contempt have not just created an emotional burden for Americans, but have often physically endangered them through harming public health and inciting violence. Trump is an unrepentant non-apologizer and he has shown time and again that he doesn’t believe that the rules and mores of what is acceptable apply to him.
The week of September 27, 2020 was quite a week, even in Trump world. In the course of seven days, the New York Times reported that Trump had paid $750 dollars in federal taxes in 2016 and 2017, no taxes in 10 of the 15 years before his presidency, and was massively in debt to unknown parties, with those debts coming soon in a few years; he attended a Presidential debate with Joe Biden in which he talked over, interrupted, lied, jeered, ignored the structure of the debate, didn’t denounce white supremacy but in fact told a hate group to “stand by,” and ignored the honor code of pre-debate Covid testing; and then tested positive for Covid himself and was rushed to Walter Reed medical center.
Anyone with moderate critical thinking skills knew that Trump and his entourage would eventually contract Covid, after repeatedly disavowing and mocking mask wearing and social distancing guidelines, spreading disinformation about the severity of the virus and possible treatments, and dismissing more than 200,000 deaths from the disease as “Elderly people with heart problems and other problems… virtually nobody.” However, I wonder if Trump was surprised at his positive test result, or if he truly thought he was immune. Susan Sontag’s AIDS and its Metaphors can shine some light on Trump’s dangerous and despicable thinking. He is a master of “us versus them,” lying to get the advantage, to taunt, to terrorize. His world is divided into himself, his enablers, and “losers.” AIDS and its Metaphors was written in 1988, just 7 years into the AIDS epidemic, when the evolution of the disease and its mortality rate still left a lot of unknowns. She writes:
From the beginning the construction of the illness had depended on notions that separated one group of people from another – the sick from the well, people with ARC from people with AIDS, them and us – while implying the imminent dissolutions of these distinctions. … The obvious consequence of believing that all those who “harbor” the virus will eventually come down with the illness is that those who test positive for it are regarded as people with AIDS, who just don’t have it… yet. … Infected means ill, from that point forward …. (amounting) to reviving the antiscientific logic of defilement.
Trump became infected and he was probably quite ill — conflicting reports came out of Walter Reed, with various evasions about test results, supplemental oxygen use, and even the length of his illness. Multiple people “misspoke” when they alluded that he was first diagnosed on Wednesday, September 30 and started an experimental antibody treatment on Thursday, October 1, both before he announced his test results to the world and before he went to a fundraiser and a rally. He lied about the severity of the disease, indirectly putting people’s lives in danger, and he lied about his own illness, directly doing so, even the lives of his own supporters. He is now one of the “them,” the losers, the virtually nobody. And he still has not taken responsibility or apologized.
In her chapter, “The Secret Life of the Non-Apologizer,” Harriet Lerner says that shame may be at the core of inability and unwillingness to apologize: “[some non-apologizers] flip shame into contempt, arrogance, a need to control, and displays of one-upmanship, dominance, and superiority.” Trump was raised by and mentored by people who used shame as a tool. Fred Trump and Roy Cohn, his father and his faux-father, respectively, believed that life was split into one winner and many losers, and that people who were kind or believed in duty were weak.
I don’t believe Trump will ever apologize for anything, certainly not for putting Americans at risk with his lies about Covid, even if this disease is what ultimately kills him. He has created an entire universe filled with contempt and skirting responsibility and blame, a universe where he is the victim.
Jed Bartlet eventually apologized to his staff and to the country. And in doing so, he received and gave the main benefit of a sincere apology – a path toward greater connection and respect.
I was wrong. I was. I was just…I was wrong. Come on, you know that. Lots of times we don’t know what right or wrong is but lots of times we do and come on, this is one. I may not have had sinister intent at the outset but there were plenty of opportunities for me to make it right. No one in government takes responsibility for anything anymore. We foster, we obfuscate, we rationalize. “Everybody does it.” That’s what we say. So we come to occupy a moral safe house where everyone’s to blame so no one’s guilty. I’m to blame. I was wrong.
This reality is possible for us, and not just on television. It won’t happen in a Donald Trump presidency, but there is a path forward, if we are brave enough to take it.