Bartlets, Underwoods and Meyers
A process story is a term used by journalists to describe a story that focuses on the mechanics of policymaking or campaigning, rather than what the policy is or what the campaign says.
We’re told that these stories draw focus away from the “substantive debate” being held. After watching almost all of the GOP debates this election season I think “substantive” might be, at best, an overstatement.
So the political-types consider process stories beneath them, or serve as a distraction from their candidates message. Of course, process stories might actually inform people about the inner workings of government, and the opinions of the people we elect to represent us.
Most people don’t know exactly how the government works, but there are three main schools of thought. Naturally, the easiest way to explain these three models is with a little help from our old friend TV.
Model 1: The West Wing
Government is full of bright, energetic, good-looking people that banter and fall in love with one another as they navigate the wide and unwieldy world of domestic and international politics, all the while keeping in mind their duty to the American people and the Constitution.
… and everybody is an immortal billionaire with a flying unicorn and who always gets the USB cord plugged in the right way on their first try!
Don’t get me wrong, I loved “The West Wing.” I remember in college going to Walmart at 3 a.m. to get season 4 on DVD after binging the previous three seasons. It was a great show with great actors; OK, it took a nose-dive after season 5 but it pulls it together around season 6 and ends strong.
But do you really think that the White House and Congress are filled to the brim with thousands of Mr. Smiths on their first trip to Washington? Have you met the government? They overpay for everything, they’re constantly on vacation, and each branch repeatedly lies to the others for their own gain.
If President Bartlett had to face down Trump in a debate he’d make up a country to invade before having to face that chaotic blur of rhetorical nonsense and multi-target offensive statements.
Model 2: House of Cards
Government is full of murderous, high-functioning sociopaths that level any and all opposition to their personal agendas through coercion, intimidation, murder, framing the innocent and pretty much ruining Freddy’s BBQ Joint.
That’s a bit much.
Sure, I don’t like paying my taxes either, and I get mad when I read about how important the government says it is to spend billions on the military budget then they force the military to buy billions of dollars worth of planes it explicitly said it does not want or need.
$432 million for the Air Force to buy 26 new C-27J planes that the Air Force has said it will not use due to the plane being, get this, too expensive to use. The Navy is building railguns like this was the future, and the government is more than happy to keep building useless planes.
But the halls of government being filled with murderous sociopaths? Hardly. People go to work for the government for a lot of different reasons, but the ones that go into government just to cruelly exercise power over others are easy to spot; usually people like that just become physical therapists.
I’m not so cynical as to think everyone is the government is beyond redemption. We have a system of government designed to empower the individual and not fall victim to the reckless winds of circumstance. It’s a good thing that a passing political movement has a tough time gaining traction in the United States since our government moves slowly enough to quench any fleeting passion; it really takes the fight out of a firebrand when there’s 8 different forms to fill out and three different committees’ approval necessary before the first draft of proposed legislation is made available to the legal team for evaluation then returned to the first committee … I got bored writing that sentence, which is a good thing. Slow government is good, we just need it to be a little faster than it is now.
Model 3: Veep
Government is full of people that are at a job, they might not really like their job but they work so much that all they have in their life is their job, and they’re constantly at risk of being fired due solely to the fact that their team lost an election so they spend most of the time trying to get reelected and covering themselves from potential political danger than actually doing some governing; all topped off with a healthy amount of disrespect for the electorate served up with the type of creative cursing that would have made Lenny Bruce proud.
That sounds about right.
Are the people in government petty? I’m sure all of them are at some point in time, who hasn’t been petty are work at least once this week? As far as a complete lack of respect and near-total antipathy towards the electorate … I can see it.
You know how doctors and nurses make jokes about their patients that would make your skin crawl, or how when two or more teachers are in a room together they immediately start insulting their students, or how soldiers have senses of humor so dark that even light can’t escape? People in stressful situations make jokes about it; jokes that, outside of their very specific set of circumstances, would make you think they belonged in prison. It’s called gallows humor and it’s pretty much the only way people can walk into those stressful situations every day.
Now imagine you’re a member of the government charged with serving Americans, the loudest and most fickle people in the history of the planet. You wouldn’t crack a few jokes to ease the tension?
Think I’m wrong? Try to get ten people to agree on toppings for a single pizza. Stressful, right? Now take that situation, add trillions of dollars plus nuclear weapons, and you’ve got the stress level of our federal government, so maybe we should cut them some slack.
Process stories might seem salacious or shallow to politicians, but that’s usually because our politicians are so scrutinized and scripted that a moment of levity between staffers could spell doom for their entire campaign/policy; the politicians aren’t “above” process stories, they just don’t want to take the chance of losing control of the public’s perception about them. I’d offer that the public’s perception of your average politician is one of a talking-points-bound mouthpiece desperately trying to not offend anyone in their constituency while simultaneously insulting members of opposing constituencies. So maybe a look behind the curtain every now and then wouldn’t be such a bad thing.
Copy Editor Wes Burns is a Sunday columnist. The views expressed in this column are personal views of the writer and don’t necessarily reflect the views of the T-R. Contact Wes Burns at 641-753-6611 or firstname.lastname@example.org