A New Reality Series Reveals the High Tension, Long Days, Stacks of Paper, and Thought Parsing That Goes Into Helping Run the Country
Hurricane Wilma made landfall on southern Florida on the morning of Oct. 24, 2005--less than 60 days after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. The very next day U.S. Congressman Robert Wexler, the Democratic representative from southern Florida’s 19th District, was on Air Force One heading down to survey the damage to his district.
Back in his Washington office, Wexler’s staff watches his arrival on CNN, which catches President Bush deplaning and shaking Wexler’s hand, giving him the collegial hand on the shoulder and pat on the back.
"They look as if they’re best buddies," laughs Lale Mamaux, Wexler’s communications director, as she glances at the TV. Foreign policy adviser and legislative assistant Halie Soifer is busy responding to changes in Wexler’s schedule and anxiously wanting to speak to the congressman about U.S. Iraq policy. Legislative director Jonathan Katz wonders aloud if the office should be strategizing Wexler’s public response to Wilma. And Chief of Staff Eric Johnson tries to corral everybody for a meeting, to get the office to address "the worst our district’s seen in 25, 50 years."
It isn’t easy. Soifer just bought an apartment with her new boyfriend, and on moving-in day they spar about the placement of German posters and Jewish tchotchkes. Johnson and his husband worry about the social acculturation of their young son, Kainoa. And Katz, Soifer, and Mamaux snipe at each other over a magazine subscription. These four attractive, whip-smart, and dedicated young people--and a handful of others--are crammed into Wexler’s Capitol Hill offices, each vying for his attention while the congressman is down in his district trying to see what his office can do to help his constituents. Tensions are high, nerves are frayed, patience is thin, and at one point Johnson, his den-mother instincts twitching, advises Mamaux specifically and the room at large to "turn it down several notches."
This candid scene comes from Sundance Channel’s original series The Hill, a six-episode vérité miniseries that follows a congressional staff from the spring of 2004 through December 2005 and makes its debut Aug. 23. The Hill creator Ivy Meeropol, who worked for five years in Washington under Congressman Harry Johnston, remembers that this scene is the only one that Wexler’s office slightly bristled at when she screened the series for it. "Congressman Wexler . . . he thought [the episodes] were all fabulous, but episode five he didn’t like as much because it shows his staff being pretty cranky with each other," she says. "A lot of in-fighting, but it’s in context and they’re stressed. It’s on the heels of Hurricane Katrina, then Hurricane Wilma hits their district and it’s devastating. And they’re all vying for the congressman’s attention, but he’s focused on the hurricane. And as [Johnson] said to him, ‘That’s what goes on when you’re not around.’"
The handsome, 37-year-old Meeropol sits in a room at the Tremont Plaza Hotel in downtown Baltimore on a scorching hot July afternoon; next to her are Elizabeth Holder and Xan Parker, the Baltimore-raised team behind Roland Park Pictures, which produced The Hill. The three women share an enthusiasm for the series that’s infectious. At a time when public confidence in government remains shaky at best, the show captures people actively, passionately, and intelligently talking about what the country is doing and how--and when--they can try to make it better.
And unlike such fictionalized dream worlds as The West Wing, The Hill shows that government is shaped by smart, idealistic people who remain unavoidably human. "But they gave you the greatest compliment," Parker says of Wexler’s staff. "And they’ve said it so many times. When we sat them down to watch it they said, ‘This is us. This is absolutely true, warts and all.’"
Holder nods her head in agreement. "‘We’re uncomfortable with what we’re seeing, but it’s the truth,’" she recalls them saying.
Americans might bridle at seeing the words "truth" being used anywhere near "government," but don’t immediately rush to label the show the usual "political" television propaganda. The Hill doesn’t stump for Wexler or even the Democratic Party, no matter how clear it is with whom the filmmaker and the show side. It isn’t a vehicle for anti-Bush rhetoric, even if many of Wexler’s platforms don’t jibe with the current administration. No, The Hill does something rather bold--it attempts to look at American politics through the paper-pushing, hectic, stressful, minutiae-filled minutes of day-to-day politics, a dramatic subject that could be more boring than watching a writer write.
And to the show’s great credit, it captures the heated give and take that goes into every single word and idea that ends up a sound bite on the evening news. "It’s about that rocky marriage between politics and policy," Meeropol says. "They’re so intertwined, and people tend to think they’re not. People tend to think if you’re getting into politics you don’t really care about policy, you don’t really care about the issues or the people it affects. That’s not true. The politics are what you use to advance your beliefs. There’s a lot of that that goes on all the time on Capitol Hill, but nobody really hears about it. People think politics is dry and there’s no real heart to it, but there’s constant struggle within each little office to make it work."
"I love voting," Holder says a few weeks after the above interview over the phone from Los Angeles. She sort of chuckles under her breath right after saying it, as if realizing that it’s a slightly cheesy thing to say and how ludicrous it is to consider voting "cheesy." "I’ve never missed since I was 18 and I just, literally, two days ago registered to vote in California."
Holder brings the subject up as a way to frame talking about The Hill. "There’s no way to say it without sounding cliché, but working on the show--what a wonderful opportunity," she says. "To have an inside look into what’s behind the sound bites that we hear on the evening news was exhilarating to me, to see what the journey is for the decisions that are made and the joys and disappointments of the staffers--it’s the next best thing to having a job on the Hill."
She’s alluding to the raw-nerved emotions that infect Wexler’s staffers, the sort of people who almost don’t have lives outside the office--a trait particularly tender in Soifer, who appears to take the mini victories and defeats of daily political life as personal embattlements. "I identify most with [Soifer] probably, in just I would get so upset about things," Meeropol says. "I literally remember crying when the first President Bush vetoed a civil-rights bill that I worked on and I was just so devastated. So I was looking for people like that because, obviously, dramatically that works, but also just to show the idealism and deeply felt beliefs are inextricable from who they are. It’s not just a bill."
Such mini dramas over time are one the main aspects that attracted Roland Park’s Parker and Holder to the idea. Meeropol--who helmed the intimate 2004 HBO documentary Heir to an Execution, the story of her grandparents Ethel and Julius Rosenberg--originally conceived The Hill as a documentary feature. "That’s the way we were pitching it because that’s the way she conceived of it," Parker says. "It was Sundance who persuaded us to expand it into a series. And I have to give a lot of credit to the Sundance Channel for really letting it be a true documentary [and] not trying to push it into a box of reality television."
And Parker knows documentaries. She was working for documentary powerhouse Maylses Films when she ran into Holder--who she first met in the first grade at the Bryn Mawr School--outside a subway stop on West Fourth Street in New York in 1994. At the time, Holder was working in television and feature films. Around that time Holder had met a woman who worked on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange who she thought would make a good documentary subject, so she approached Parker for her documentary acumen.
That collaboration resulted in Risk/Reward, the critically lauded 2003 documentary that aired on the Oxygen network, and the production company that they still operate today, Roland Park Pictures. "The thing that’s really changed our world is reality television because suddenly the TV production world has started to look at documentary producers in a different way," Parker says. "And sometimes that’s really great, and sometimes that’s not very good. It’s changed the kind of budgets that people expect you to work with and sometimes it effects the content that they expect, because now there’s so many reality television producers out there who will just fill the empty hour when it’s literally just a show made with unpaid actors.
"We’re very much of the school of thought that you should treat your subjects with the utmost respect, and that you want to make a film about someone or something that you really care about--and you can even really care about something that really isn’t your cup of tea," Parker continues. "And that kind of trust and mutual respect, which people sometimes pooh-pooh in reality television--they say, ‘Oh it’s not important--c’mon, let’s just move faster and get the line we need’--you don’t have to wait that long. Reality provides. You just have to give it a chance."
And how. The series concludes shortly after Democratic Pennsylvania Congressman John Murtha, a Vietnam War veteran, directly opposed the Bush administration’s handling of Iraq and called for the withdrawal of U.S. troops last Nov. 17. The very next day congressional Republicans countered with House Resolution 571 and forced an immediate vote on whether the deployment of U.S. forces in Iraq should be terminated immediately.
Wexler and his staff, and many other congressional offices, recognized the ploy for what it was: political bluff calling, challenging Democrats to vote in favor of a Republican-sponsored bill that pushed Murtha’s statement to its extreme, turning it into a proposal not even Murtha himself could consent to. And it put Democrat representatives in a political bind: A "yes" vote plays as cut-and-run cowardice; "no" a de facto consent to stay the proverbial course.
As Wexler’s time to vote approaches, he and his staff volley ideas back and forth on what they should do: "No" because that’s what Democratic leadership says, "Yes" because maybe, just maybe, it’s time to be publicly angry. That’s been Soifer’s position all along: Bring them home now. Johnson points out that just as many soldiers can die in half-ass exits as half-ass occupations. Katz suggests amending Wexler’s vote with a press release revealing the resolution as the political gamesmanship that it is. And Wexler finally asks his staff point blank about what a "Yes" vote could mean: Do we risk destabilizing Egypt with an immediate withdrawal? Do we risk the breakup of Iraq into three parts? Do we risk a practically inevitable Turkey-Iraq skirmish? What about the credibility of the United States?
Soifer, ever following her heart, counters, "Where’s our credibility now?"
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