Editor’s Notebook: A choice of fictions
We all have the freedom to choose our fiction. (Getty Images)
One of the presidential candidates was on a stage just down the road in Manchester on Wednesday night. He was there for a televised “town hall” style meeting, although it didn’t look like any town hall I’ve ever visited nor did it sound like any town meeting I’ve attended. I doubt there were even fundraiser brownies for sale in the lobby.
I wasn’t at the event, mind you. And I watched only a bit of it on CNN by accident, when I was looking for a saved episode of “All Creatures Great and Small.” I stuck around for a couple of minutes because I was curious to see whether the candidate had found an untapped reservoir of humility and humanity, or at a minimum changed up his tone and approach. I got my answers instantly.
I was grateful for that, because then I could switch over to my light drama on PBS without feeling like I was depriving the candidate of a fair hearing. While “All Creatures Great and Small” is fiction, it’s based on a true story, and I thought that made it not unlike the “town hall” style meeting I wouldn’t be watching.
It isn’t the kind of streaming fare I normally go for. I’m not a regular public television viewer, nor am I all that interested in veterinary medicine as practiced in 1930s Yorkshire. But I like how the show examines, through the eyes and actions of young veterinarian James Herriot, what it means to do the right thing even when it’s the hardest thing. So while “All Creatures Great and Small” tells the story of a small, rural community of people and animals in early 20th century England, really it’s about the little moments in life where we can either act with integrity – sometimes at great personal or professional cost – or play it safe.
The fictional James Herriot is the kind of person we used to like to believe we were sending to Washington, but we’re wiser now. Integrity is weakness. Ethical and moral principles? Those are for suckers and losers.
If you’re brave enough to seek office, it’s best to heed Mark Twain’s warning: “Be good and you will be lonesome.”
Many years ago, I was a big fan of another fictional drama more directly connected to the American political system. “The West Wing” – led by Martin Sheen’s President Jed Bartlet of New Hampshire – was packed wall to wall with James Herriots. Imagine an entire White House staff of empathetic people striving to do the right thing all the time – and being so witty while doing it. Just imagine.
I remember one flashback scene from the first episode of the second season, where scuffling presidential candidate Bartlet is addressing a sparsely attended “town hall” style meeting in Nashua. A dairy farmer stands up and tells Bartlet that his position on the Dairy Farming Compact did real damage. “I’m a businessman,” the farmer says, “and that vote hurt me to the tune of maybe 10 cents a gallon.”
Bartlet hears the man out, and to the chagrin of his top campaign advisers offers this response: “Yeah, I screwed you on that one.”
The candidate goes on to say that the farmer before him is one of many of his constituents harmed by the vote. And then he explains himself: “One in 5 children live in the most abject, dangerous, hopeless, backbreaking, gut-wrenching poverty any of us could imagine, 1 in 5, and they’re children. If fidelity to freedom and democracy is the code of our civic religion then surely the code of our humanity is faithful service to that unwritten commandment that says, ‘We shall give our children better than we ourselves received.’ Let me put it this way: I voted against the bill because I didn’t want to make it harder for people to buy milk.”
I know, I know: It’s a lot easier to be a James Herriot or Jed Bartlet when you live in a created world with great writers crafting your scenes. But here’s the thing – all of us have the freedom to choose our fiction. On Wednesday night I chose mine not because I seek comfort in a hard world, but because I’m drawn to the part of the story that’s true and human. I’m drawn to the rutted path of integrity, to the daily struggle to do the right thing even when it’s the hardest thing.
I’m a sucker for characters brave enough to be good.
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