Is it actually a good idea to have recovering alcoholics in positions of power?

Leo_McGarryI’ve been rewatching season one of The West Wing, and in that show there’s a plotline where some political opponents of the President try to embarrass his Chief of Staff, Leo, by revealing that Leo spent time, seven years ago, in treatment for drug and alcohol addiction. And in the show, this is treated like a completely cynical and absurd move, because we know Leo! He’s so wise and caring and responsible! Obviously no one could ever doubt that the world is a better place with Leo in charge!

However, I’m not sure it is an absurd objection. First of all, before someone goes off all half-cocked on me, please note that I’m a recovering alcoholic myself (with five years of sobriety), and that I’m not proposing that anyone in real life be fired from their job (also, firing someone for their recovery status would be, under the ADA, an illegal act).

But you have to wonder…Leo is in a position of immense responsibility, where he needs to exercise sound judgment every day. He’s also in a position that entails lots of stress and lots of temptation. Most people have an awful day here or there. But when a recovering alcoholic has an awful day, there is a non-zero chance that he will start drinking. And if he starts drinking, then there’s a very good chance that the next few months (or years, or decades) of his life are going to be filled with dropped responsibilities, unsound judgment, poor mental acuity, mood swings, heart problems, criminal behavior, lying, panic, depression, rage, etc.

So I have to say that alcoholism, even when you’re in recovery, seems like a definite downside for a person. In most cases, though, the downside is ameliorated because if a person starts drinking, their performance tends to tail off pretty quickly, and they can be fired relatively easily. In Leo’s case, though, you have to wonder. He’s basically a shadow president (a Dick Cheney figure). How long would it take to fire him? How much damage would he do in the meantime?

I think what’s scary about this thought experiment, though, is that every person runs this sort of risk every single day. I mean, for most people, it’s not alcoholism, but it’s something. Anyone can have a nervous breakdown or a psychotic episode or a period of depression. Anyone can have a stroke or early-onset Alzheimer’s or just a gradual decrease of mental abilities. Anyone can become arrogant and detached and really full of themselves. Anyone can become nervous and withdrawn and fearful. Basically, past performance is never a guarantee. Anyone’s abilities can fail them at any time.

We pretend like there are two states in life: “healthiness” and “disaster”. And we pretend that, barring disasters, we can expect such and such a span of health.

But when we shove disaster aside in that little phrase, ‘barring disaster’, we ignore that…well…disaster will come. It’s unavoidable. It’s like, i remember a conversation I once had with a young Silicon Valley guy. He was talking about how he exercised and didn’t smoke or drink and he ate kale and did everything perfectly and, as such, he could expect to live to be 100.

So (ignoring whether that number is sound on an actuarial level or not), I said, “Yeah, but you could get hit by a bus tomorrow? Or some free radical could shoot through one of your cells and flip it over into a cancer cell.”

And he was like, “Oh yeah, I meant barring all that stuff.”

Which is fine, I guess, and I knew what he meant. But that is the stuff. That’s the stuff that happens. We pretend like death and disease only come to those who ‘deserve’ them. We pretend like only alcoholics suffer breakdowns and terrible mood swings. We pretend that only smokers get cancer. And, more insidiously, the moment someone falls ill, we re-label them. They’re not like us. They’re disabled people. We’re not disabled. We’re healthy. We know, intellectually, that there is no moral difference between us and them, but just being able to think of it in those terms–as two very separate camps–is comforting, because it ignores how easy it is to cross from one into the other.

Been rewatching Season 6 and Season 7 of THE WEST WING

c180a93fccd41f02c4a1209b6e572989This show changed its structure pretty significantly during its run. For the first few seasons, it was mostly problem-of-the-week stories, with a few arcs that might last an episode or three. I think the most major enduring arc was the scandal over the President hiding some health problem that he had. Even the President’s reelection campaign didn’t get nearly as much play as one would expect. But then, during the final two seasons of the West Wing, the story got dominated by the campaign to replace the outgoing President. And it becomes extremely involved and complex. Firstly, the show builds up two entire Demcratic presidential candidates out of nothing and then has the various West Wing staffers pick sides and array themselves against each other. And then, just as that arc is ending, they concocted an extremely likeable and compelling array of Republican characters (all of whom are completely new to the show) to serve as the general election opponents.

The entire thing is a thrill ride. You’re legitimately not sure who’s going to win. Because this was the last season of the show, it was quite possible that the whole thing could end with a Republican win. And, truth be told, the Republican candidate does come off as the more appealing one throughout the show. In fact, that’s probably the major problem with it. The Republican doesn’t believe in God, and he supports abortion. He does believe in cutting spending and taxes, but the show spends zero time on that. As a result, he comes off as very cuddly and honest. Which is a bit disappointing.

But there’s still lots of fascinating things here. Like when they bring one of the long-time West Wing characters, Leo McGarry, in to be the Vice Presidential pick and the Presidential nominee is a bit leery of him. Or when the President goes in there and tries to scold the nominee. You realize, oh, wow, these people don’t really know each other. They haven’t watched the last seven seasons of this show. They don’t know that they’re all the good guys.

And it’s also interesting to see the compromises that they make: the maneuvering and the dealmaking and the horsetrading. It’s on a much lower scale than in real life, of course. But because the characters start out as such shining archetypes, it’s disturbing whenever they do anything dishonest. Whereas if the show was more true to life, we probably wouldn’t look askance at any form of corruption. For instance, in The Wire, the mayor covers up some stuff that, in real life, would be amazingly beyond the pale (even in Baltimore). But because the show portrays all of American public life as being corrupt, we don’t even bat an eye.