Yesterday, I was embedded in two of the greatest works of culture to come out of the USA in modern times. Both set a high bar, for quality, emotional clout, and contemporary significance. And both remind me that, if I want to make a difference, I have to be in the room.
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In the morning, I found myself watching Two Cathedrals, probably the greatest episode of the greatest ensemble TV shows every produced – the show that set the bar – The West Wing.
In Two Cathedrals, President Bartlet struggles with the decision as to whether or not he will run for a second term in office. He is riven by insecurity, distraught at the loss of one of his oldest friends, uncertain about his own future, and trying to deal with an international crisis.
As the episode reaches its climax, against the strains of The Dire Straits’ Brothers in Arms, President Bartlet reaches his decision. But to get there, he takes himself through the numbers: children have a one in five chance of being born into poverty, 44 million Americans don’t have health insurance, homicide is the leading cause of death for black men under 35, 3 million Americans behind bars, 5 million American Drug Addicts. He knows exactly what is at stake, or rather who – because he is dealing with people’s lives – and he knows that he can do something about it.
In the evening, I moved forward 20 years in production, and back two centuries in subject, to the founding of the USA, and the incomparable musical Hamilton, undoubtedly the best musical I have ever seen. (Buy the Cast Recording, buy the Mixtape, see the show in New York or London if you can, I cannot emphasise this enough.)
If you don’t know about Hamilton, I can only assume you have been living under a log. But to summarise, it follows the life and fortunes of Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton, the orphaned son of a mixed-race relationship, was born in the Caribbean, emigrated to what would become the USA, and rose to become the fledgling nation’s first treasury secretary and a key figure among the American founding fathers. His rise was truly meteoric, and owed a great deal both to his towering intellect (shared with The West Wing’s President Bartlet), and his remarkable ambition.
Hamilton also, like President Bartlet, recognises that decisions are made by those who show up, and takes the decision to prioritise serving the nation, even when it comes at a cost to his relationships. He pushes through a plan for a new central bank, though it means abandoning his family. He longs to fight in the American War of Independence, despite the wishes of his wife. He endorses his enemy, over an old friend who he believes lacks the principles needed to lead the country.
There is a great deal I could go in to about either of these shows, yet watching them in the same day, the key thing which hit me (apart from how utterly fantastic they both are), is this one similarity. Both take the decision to do all they can to better shape their nation; to be in the room where it happens. Hamilton will not throw away his shot. Bartlet for America.
Of course, both have platforms – Bartlet is President, Hamilton, is George Washington’s right-hand man, yet both get there through hard work. The world has changed, even since the early 2000’s. Where once getting the platform was the challenge, now anyone can have a platform. Information is democratised. The challenge, now, is to say something interesting. To make your voice heard. And that is something I haven’t nailed yet.