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The West Wing, COVID-19, and the Great Debate

The president faces a formidable opponent who does his homework and is prepared with facts and figures. The rival brings a folksy, country music patina and has a stature and a demeanor of a leader. He is prepared. He works the room, he plays to the crowd.

On the other hand, the president prepares for the debate in an intensive boot camp on debating skills, yet his handlers are genuinely concerned about his readiness. But there is more. In the run-up to the debate, the president becomes aware that a ship of a rogue state in an unstable part of the world is transporting some of the most incendiary, sophisticated, and devastating weapons. This is an all-consuming “distraction,” which could explode into a worldwide cataclysm. And this is on the eve of the greatest debate of his political career.

What, what?

Life imitates art. Or is it vice versa?

For almost ten seasons the West Wing—the TV show—remained a mesmerizing, almost hypnotic television series focusing on the presidency of Jed Bartlet and his entourage of communicators and trusted advisors.

In real life our current president and the former vice president sparred in a similarly chaotic, confusing, and combative “debate,” which was more of a boxing match than an intelligent discussion of policies. The menace of a rogue "ship" looms large.

Ironically, the West Wing session focused on the debate between Governor Ritchie from Florida and the current TV president. What could we possibly learn from this fictional encounter when we are faced with these cataclysmic developments in real life? Well, we can learn survival tactics.

On TV, the president quickly convened his political, military, and international advisors. He was intense; he was reflective as he processed the input from his credentialed team. With a decisive and convincing demeanor, he gave the order to stop the ship.

IRL, the pandemic ship continues to sail. It has not turned around. And the world remains in the grip of tragedy from a lethal virus we cannot see. The implications of the COVID-19 pandemic have approached an apocalyptic dimension, magnified and accelerated by the blistering communications empire where events on the other side of the globe reach our devices in a fraction of a second.

The economy is unraveling; experts are anticipating 400,000 deaths in the United States alone over the next several months. Civil unrest, riots in the streets, a disintegration of the very fabric of our civilization.

And now, in a vitriolic, mean-spirited political environment, as one late-night commentator said, “We cannot even pretend to get our arms around this” news that the president and first lady have fallen ill.

Some powerful lessons for us during these unparalleled times of peril.

  • First things first. Keep the main thing the main thing. Total immersive engagement in one task in front of us, one app at a time. To toggle back and forth between engagements dramatically increases our rate of errors and diminishes our retention and decision-making ability.

  • Process the facts, the circumstances, and the data and with a decisive commitment, make a decision. Some situations cannot be tabled or brought back for another review. The time is now.

  • Total absorption in the task at hand means the importance of creative delegation. We now know that there is decisional fatigue. The more decisions we have to make, the less energy we have at the end of the day.

Most of us are not faced with decisions of a global significance, but we are faced with decisions about the well-being of our family, friends, and ourselves. When it comes to COVID, we know what to do. We know about hand washing, masks, and social distancing.

And we know the empowerment from becoming aware but not paralyzed and consumed by the numbing loop of cable news and social media. Yes, as with President Bartlet, the buck stopped with him and the buck stops with us when it comes to making decisions about our health and well-being.

Our lives are not reality TV. Our lives are real life. We know how the story is unfolding.


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