One of the most difficult but crucial aspects of being a sensitive student of American history is, I believe, doing justice to the kinds of complexities that defy not only easy answers but also (a lot of the time) our own political or social leanings. Perhaps the most compelling example of that need, at least for my own biases, would be the Rosenberg case and execution in the 1950s. For a long time I was entirely convinced that the Rosenbergs were simply two of the most high-profile and extreme victims of McCarthyism, and that the executions of these two average Americans represented one of the very lowest points in that era of paranoia and fear and divisiveness. But while I haven’t changed my perspective on the era or on McCarthyism, the recent release of previously secret documents has seemed to confirm that at least Julius Rosenberg did, indeed, try to sell nuclear secrets to the Soviets; they were relatively minor and perhaps even useless secrets, and it seems probable that Ethel knew very little and was not actively involved in any way, and thus that her execution was indeed unnecessary and deeply disturbing. But nonetheless, Julius Rosenberg’s conviction of and execution for treason was almost certainly not the McCarthyist railroading that I had believed it to be; and holding that knowledge alongside my unwavering critique of all things McCarthy is precisely the kind of historical complexity about which I’m thinking.
You wouldn’t think that a popular dramatic TV show would be the best place to find justice being done to such complex national and historical issues, but in fact that was one of the central and continual goals of Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing (at least over its first few seasons; I haven’t seen the final few, and I know that Sorkin had moved on from most of his involvement with the show by then, so it’s particularly seasons 1-3 or so that I have in mind here). Certainly the primary focus of each episode was on the combination of contemporary politics and the many personalities and perspectives of the characters advising Martin Sheen’s President Bartlett, and there were always plenty of secondary plotlines offering romance and relationships, comic relief, and, of course, rapid-fire and pitch-perfect dialogue. But in many of the episodes, and almost all of the best ones, at least one of the central threads would connect back to precisely such complex and defining national and historical issues; those threads, quite appropriately, usually offered no clear-cut answers or black-and-white perspectives, but instead tried both to highlight the complexities themselves and to make clear how much our own identity and perspective informs where we come down on them.
One such episode is Season 2’s “Somebody’s Going to Emergency, Somebody’s Going to Jail,” in particular a main plot thread in which Rob Lowe’s Sam is asked by a childhood friend of Donna’s (a co-worker) to make a case to the President that he should pardon the friend’s late grandfather, who had been convicted of spying for the Soviets many decades before. Sam has long believed in the man’s innocence and happily takes on the case, only to learn, when the National Security director gives me brief but convincing access to the relevant secret files, that he was in fact guilty of the charges against him. This stunning revelation for Sam parallels one with which the episode had opened, when he learned that his father had been consistently unfaithful to his mother and that they will be separating after many decades of marriage. When Donna begs Sam to just keep the granddaughter (and her father, who is dying) unaware of her grandfather’s guilt without promising anything about the pardon, Sam initially responds angrily that he will do no such thing, launches into an eloquent rant about high treason, and concludes that “she’s going to learn who her father really was!” He of course means the woman’s grandfather, and in this single moment of dialogue we can see how much these two revelations have come together to shake many of the core beliefs—both personal and political—that have defined Sam to this point. He certainly will be significantly changed by those revelations—as the episode’s title, an allusion to the Eagles’ “New York Minute,” makes clear—but in the final minutes, with that song beginning to play in the background , he demonstrates that he will work to include them in his new identity and perspective: first telling the granddaughter the white lie that Donna had requested, allowing her to go call her father; and then, as the episode ends, calling his own father.
One of the best lines in “New York Minute” (it’s got a number of good ones) is “What the head makes cloudy, the heart makes very clear.” But while I would generally agree with that sentiment when it comes to romantic relationships (on which the song focuses), I’d say it’s a lot more complicated than that when it comes to American history and identity. There, I think the cloudiness that comes from significant understanding is entirely appropriate, and that in fact only by recognizing and trying to engage with those clouds can we get to a clearer vision of who we are, who we have been, and who, at heart, we can be. More tomorrow, on the defining and all too unknown duality at the heart of one of the best-known Americans.
PS. Two links to start with:
1) The episode’s final couple minutes: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cKnoSMGQNGU
2) A New York Times story from the period in 2008 when the new Rosenberg details were being released: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/09/12/nyregion/12spy.html?_r=1
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