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Don't Deny This Feeling

President Bartlet and Uncle Iroh on apologizing

President Bartlet could not escape the consequences any longer. In season 3 of The West Wing, the House of Representatives resolves to officially Censure him in a formal motion for concealing his multiple sclerosis (MS) from the American people. Bartlet’s chief of staff is determined to fight the censure and refuses to accept it without continuing to fight. The President has come to a realization that his longtime friend and loyal staffer doesn’t want to hear.

In the episode, Bartlet is gifted a map of the Holy Land that dates back to 1709. In the map, the region is of course marked as being Palestine. The map doesn’t “recognize Israel” because Israel will not exist for another 250 years. Bartlet loves history. He’s a big nerd and excited about the map his staffer found for him. So he wants to mount it in the West Wing. His top staff won’t let it happen. “It could offend people” is what they tell him. Bartlett is confused and indignant. He knows why the map would cause controversy. His opponents would say it is mounted as a statement of his support or disinterest in supporting Israel in its struggles against terrorism coming from the Gaza Strip.

This episode aired in 2002. Isn’t that interesting?

Bartlet is angry because the map isn’t a statement about his views on Israel-Palestine. It’s just a map from 1709. It’s a fact that in 1709, Israel as we know it today did not exist. He wants to be right. But his staff is right, that as President he needs to be tactful and not invite a controversy that will distract from their priorities.

Inside he feels something about the whole disagreement. Facts never hurt anyone. Why can’t people just see the map as a cool historical relic and nothing more?

This post isn’t about Middle Eastern affairs. It’s actually a total coincidence.

What Bartlett feels convicted of by this clash of wills over the map is to recognize another area in his life where facts will not harm anyone.

He was dishonest with the nation about his health. And he needs to admit it. His staff is doing their job, just like with the map, by fighting back against anything that would hurt Bartlet politically. But the truth is the truth, and he should not have concealed his illness when running for re-election.

It is usually best to admit mistakes when they occur and to seek to restore honor

Uncle Iroh — Avatar: The Last Airbender

Bartlet decides to accept Congress’ censure, a black mark that will go down in history, and move on with his life and presidency.

It’s a remarkable moment of television and without a doubt a delayed response by The West Wing to what happened with President Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky in 1997.

No one accepts responsibility anymore. No one says they are sorry. This problem has gotten so much worse in our politics since 2002. So much worse.

But you can still take ownership. You can take responsibility and set things right. Just let it happen. Apologize. Talk about your mistakes. People you love are watching and will learn from your mistakes…if you can muster up the courage to admit them.

If someone can prove me wrong and show me my mistake in any thought or action, I shall gladly change. I seek the truth, which never harmed anyone: the harm is to persist in one's own self-deception and ignorance.

Marcus Aurelius