The recipe for a successful reality television series is relatively straightforward. Take a bunch of young, attractive coeds, cram them into a tight space and stoke their competitive instincts with a common challenge that demands both teamwork and individual distinction. Set up a camera, and voilá: instant drama, or, at least, a reasonable facsimile thereof. By those terms, congressional offices, uniformly cramped and staffed by ambitious 20-somethings, should make a perfect reality-TV setting.
This is the premise of “The Hill,” a six-part documentary series, first airing on the Sundance Channel on August 23, that chronicles the inner-workings of the office of Florida Democratic Congressman Robert Wexler. The director, accomplished documentary filmmaker Ivy Meeropol , knows of what she shoots: She served time as a speechwriter and legislative aide for Wexler’s predecessor in Congress. Her most famous documentary, “Heir to an Execution,” was about coming to terms with the execution of her grandparents, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.
Meeropol has chosen an interesting moment to cast a light on the dynamics of a Capitol Hill office. As abysmal as President Bush’s popularity rating is these days, Congress’s numbers are even worse. According to a recent poll conducted by The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, only 7% of respondents thought the current Congress had accomplished more than usual, whereas 41% believed that Congress had achieved less than usual, the most negative evaluation of our representatives in a decade. But the poll’s finding has a double meaning. On the one hand, the public thinks Congress is full of partisan hacks and preening ideologues. On the other hand, this distrust doesn’t necessarily translate into a wholesale rejection of political life. In other words, if the vast majority of the population doesn’t trust Congress, there’s a considerable chunk that wishes it could. It’s these competing beliefs that animate Meeropol’s documentary.
We get the petty bickering (battles over who can claim the office subscription to The Economist, for instance) and small-scale flirting that are the standard fare of many reality series, and that will satisfy some of the suspicions of the political cynic. But there are also plenty of moments that will remind viewers of the idealism and moral commitments that propel staffers through the hours of stuffing envelopes and crafting press releases.
In managing that balance, Meeropol has chosen her subject well. The camera certainly doesn’t mind Wexler, a regular on political talk shows. An observant Jew who represents one of the nation’s most heavily Jewish and elderly districts (including parts of Florida’s Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties), Wexler is probably one of the few congressmen with a framed Forward article hung prominently on his office wall. In the series — and on the news circuit — he exudes if not gravitas, then at least a boyish charm and an appealing earnestness that make him a capable advocate for issues that his constituents care deeply about: Israel and Social Security, especially. Over the course of the six episodes, we follow Wexler and his staff from the 2004 election to the Thanksgiving congressional recess the following year. We watch Wexler defend Senator John Kerry’s policies on Israel; we watch him buck the Democratic leadership and offer his own plan for reforming Social Security; we watch him tour parts of Florida that have been ravaged by Hurricane Katrina, and rail against the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s incompetence.
But Wexler isn’t really the star of this series. That honor goes to the congressman’s exceptionally telegenic staff, who bicker, pal around, bash Bush and outmaneuver one another for face-time with their boss. There’s Eric Johnson, Wexler’s strategically savvy, mordantly witty chief of staff. Johnson first entered politics as a teenager in a conservative area of Florida, and he jokes that he had to come out twice — first as a Democrat, and then as a gay man. (If he didn’t exist, the Sundance Channel would probably have invented him.) And then there’s Halie Soifer, an adorable foreign policy wonk who dreams of being a National Security Council staffer. We follow her efforts to pull Wexler toward more outspoken positions against the Iraq War, and her frequent feuds with the congressman’s more wary press secretary. We also follow her down to Florida, where she trolls for Jewish votes in the run-up to the 2004 presidential election, wearing a hat that subtly declares, “John Kerry Is Good for the Jews.” And we’re privy to Halie’s romantic travails, as well: Early in the series, she splits up with one boyfriend after he campaigns for Bush. By the series finale, though, she’s found herself a nice congressional aide to settle down with (there’s a great scene in which they argue over where to put the Judaica in their new apartment).
Besides his engaging staff, there’s one more reason that Wexler serves Meeropol’s documentary well. As a self-described “nobody” in an opposition party, much of what Wexler does boils down to creating compelling theater anyway. Without the votes in the Republican-controlled House (and a Republican Senate and White House don’t help, either), the best that Wexler can often hope for is an artful performance of righteous indignation — for sending a message, if not for passing a bill. This can make for some awkward, rather dispiriting exchanges. In one scene, when Halie laments that each day the United States stays in Iraq, another 10 American soldiers die, urging Wexler to come out in support of the withdrawal of American forces, Chief of Staff Johnson responds, “And Robert’s statement will save their lives?”
But Wexler’s predicament also provides some moments of high drama. The series peaks toward the end, when the staff must react to the resolution offered by Rep. John Murtha, a former Marine colonel and Vietnam vet, calling for the withdrawal of troops from Iraq “at the earliest practicable date.” The Republicans, hoping to smoke out the Democrats and put them on record for withdrawal, offer a bare-bones parody of Murtha’s resolution, which calls for the troops to leave immediately. The Democratic leadership strongly advises the caucus to avoid the trap and to vote against the Republican offering. Wexler, who prefers a phased redeployment of troops to an immediate withdrawal, recognizes the Republican ploy but also sees the resolution as an opportunity to voice his opposition to Bush’s handling of the war. Should he risk political embarrassment — not to mention the ire ofthe Democratic higher-ups — for the sake of an ambiguous symbolic gesture?
In the moments before the vote, Wexler assembles his staff members in his office and asks each for his or her opinion. He takes in their yeas and nays, and then the bell rings and he heads off to the House Chamber. The camera follows him as he paces down the hallway and disappears around the corner. It is a moment of real suspense: Neither his staff nor the viewer knows how Wexler will vote, and we are left with the suspicion that he isn’t quite sure, either.
Will this behind-the-scenes access to Wexler’s office heal the nation of its political cynicism? Of course not. But, to get to the really important questions, is Wexler’s star-turn good for the Jews? Sure, why not? Will it be good for Sundance? We’ll find out August 23.
Benjamin Soskis is completing a doctorate in American intellectual history at Columbia University. He lives in Washington, D.C., in the shadow of the Capitol.