5 Times “The West Wing” Inspired My Career


Aaron Sorkin, the creative mind behind The West Wing, has called his show “a love letter to public service.” Even though I’m Canadian, I began studying U.S. politics at a very young age.

I’ve always loved The West Wing. I might even be a little obsessed.

In my office, I have a West Wing bumper sticker (Santos/McGarry 2005) and a print of an inspirational quote. At home, I have two complete sets of DVDs, various pins, t-shirts, buttons and other artifacts. I frequently find myself referring to the show’s dialogue, and my wife accuses me of talking about the characters as if they’re real people.

The only challenge I had in sharing these thoughts was keeping my list to just five ideas. In no particular order, they are:

Those of us who have worked in government for any length of time likely relate to this one on a visceral level. As I’m writing this, Hurricane Irma is destroying Florida. While CNN focuses on the dramatic pictures – rain and wind and buildings tossed around like toys – there’s a bigger story that often goes untold.

This one feels personal for me. We have family in south Florida. Right now they’re safe. I hope with every fiber of my being that they and everyone else stay that way.

I used to be very closely involved in my government’s emergency planning process. I know, as many of you probably do, how complex those arrangements are. It goes beyond simple logistics or attention to detail. You have to consider an impossibly intertwined series of problems, and more “what-if” questions than you might get from the average three-year-old.

And that doesn’t even begin to touch on the public-sector engineers and architects who both design and manage our collective infrastructure. We live their successes and failures every single day. Our lives, literally, depend on them.

And then there are the first responders, those truly selfless models of public service who struggle against their most basic fight-or-flight instincts, often to the point of self-injury. There’s a reason we call them heroes.

This was White House communications director Toby Ziegler’s advice on leadership to his protégé –and sometimes foil– Will Bailey. You might quibble with the slightly imperial tone. Be that as it may, it’s a good reminder that as a leader, I have to set a clear example, with my words and my actions – and then I have to be prepared to be held accountable for my decisions.

  • At the end of the episode entitled 20 Hours in America, President Josiah (Jed) Bartlet gives a speech that still gives me the chills each and every time I hear it. This is especially true of the lines about how “They ran back into the fire..” and “The streets of heaven are too crowded with angels.”

Of all the jobs I’ve held in government, the one that’s closest to my heart is speech writing. I love that it’s mostly about story telling; that it’s perhaps the best way to engage an audience directly. I also love that a truly skilled orator can elevate words and turn them into art.

Once or twice in my career, I’ve had the opportunity to hear my words coming from the mouth of someone who fit that description. It was absolutely thrilling. I teach my public administration students that the best speeches are often given when emotions are already running high. Bartlet takes this moment to show empathy, compassion, humanity and leadership – all at once.

This is true of life itself, not just government work. If you want to make a difference, to have a say, there’s no alternative to being present and making your voice heard. You won’t always win the day. The only guarantee you have is that you can’t hope to influence something you’ve ignored.

This one is perhaps my favorite. It’s part of a longer pep talk that Chief of Staff Leo McGarry gives to Josh Lyman, the White House Director of Policy, who’s having an especially crappy day. Watch the video, and you’ll know why it’s the inspirational quote I’ve chosen to have on the wall of my office.

Finally, I’ve chosen a quote that reflects the other part of my career, as a college instructor: “Schools should be incredibly expensive for government and absolutely free of charge to its citizens, just like national defense. That’s my position. I just haven’t figured out how to do it yet.

To me, the operative part of that line is, “I just haven’t figured out how to do it yet.” Government can be, should be, about big ideas. The devil, as they say, is always in the details.


Larry Till is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.


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