Television March 2001

The Feel Good Presidency

The pseudo-politics of The West Wing

In the heat of Campaign 2000, NBC's publicity department began an ad campaign trumpeting its own version of "a president we can all agree on." The man in question, of course, was Josiah Bartlet, the embattled chief executive played by Martin Sheen in the network's runaway nighttime-serial hit, The West Wing. At about the same time, cars in southern California reportedly began sporting bumper stickers that read BARTLET FOR PRESIDENT. When the Democratic National Committee scheduled a party on the set of the show, in Los Angeles, during the Democratic Convention, more than a few wags commented that the Democrats would be far better off with the charismatic, principled chief executive that television had produced to wide popular acclaim than with the unpersuasive populist crusader who was sopping up bucketloads of Hollywood's political largesse, to dangerously mounting popular indifference.

Illustration by David Small

It's tempting, of course, to write off such goofy talk—much of it the handiwork of publicists—to our pop culture's always dubious engagement with reality. After all, hadn't there been speculation earlier, in the heady, celebrity-ridden primary season, about presidential runs by Warren Beatty and Cybill Shepherd? Isn't it but a turn of the screw to propose an entirely fictional character as a suitable leader of the world's only superpower—much as Pat Paulsen mounted his successive satirical campaigns, and Robert Altman filmed a cult mockumentary around the imaginary candidate Jack Tanner?

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Do you recognize the Clinton West Wing in The West Wing?
Four members of the Clinton White House staff share their thoughts.
Lowell Weiss
White House speechwriter, 1997-2000.
Joshua King
White House Director of Production, 1993-1997.
Jonathan M. Orszag
White House economic policy adviser, 1996-1999.
Rica Rodman Orszag
White House Press Office aide, 1993-1997.

But the problem here is that the notion of a Bartlet presidency struck—and continues to strike—many influential observers as a perfectly sound idea. Countless devotees of the show, both in TV journalism and on its many reverent, unofficial fan Web sites, regard the weekly doings on The West Wing as anything but satire. The clear critical verdict is that this Wednesday-evening set piece of frenetic Oval Office intrigue presents a far more edifying vision of America's political soul than anything that has wafted out of the Grand Guignol of our scandal-addled, impeachment-scarred, ballot-challenged national government.

In any event, the mere persistence—indeed, the continued, mammoth popularity—of the show signals a curious sort of social contract, ratifying and institutionalizing one of the striking themes of America's post-1960s civitas: the selective (yet ever didactic) liberal retreat into political fantasy. After all, it had long occurred to the show's legions of fans that a Bush victory could revoke a good part of its earnest purchase on topicality. And one leitmotif of press accounts of The West Wing over the protracted election of 2000 was to broach the question of how the show—which over its first two seasons has played as a sort of higher-minded, conscience-haunted upgrade of the Clinton White House—might change in the event of a Bush victory. The consensus, as the show's creator and chief writer, Aaron Sorkin, announced, was that no such reality-based revisions would be required: a Bush victory "hasn't played in my mind at all," he said in a lavish cover story on the show in the November George. Come December, however, Sorkin did confess to Michael Wolff, in New York magazine, that the show couldn't help benefiting from the unsightly overall condition of America's democratic experiment: the time, he said, "is just right for the cavalry to come riding in."

This pair of remarks captures the curious cognitive balancing act The West Wing has introduced into our popular culture. On the one hand, it claims no ambitions any grander than those of any other television show—to divert and entertain viewers and (usually in special holiday episodes) to produce agreeably broad and radiant installments in the nation's continuing sentimental education. But on the other hand, it has an overt agenda so breathtaking in its sweep that "ambitious" hardly begins to sum it up: The West Wing sets out, week after week, to restore public faith in the institutions of our government, to shore up the bulwarks of American patriotism, and to supply a vision of executive liberalism—at once principled and pragmatic; mandating both estimable political vision and serious personal sacrifice; plying an understanding of the nation's common good that is heroically heedless of focus groups, opposition research, small-bore compromise, and re-election prospects—that exists nowhere else in our recent history.

How, exactly, has this come to be? On the most obvious level The West Wing appeals to liberal viewers as an exercise in wish-fulfillment fantasy, pointing a way out of their post-Clinton predicament. Indeed, the most common theme in the many celebrations of the show's political virtues has been that it gives us a version of Clintonism with both moral gravitas and political backbone, while editing out the more risible parts of the Clinton legacy—an act, commentators say, of "empathy" unthinkable in the normal rounds of political reporting. The former White House aide Matthew Miller wrote in a wide-eyed appreciation of the show in Brill's Content last spring, "By the seemingly innocuous act of portraying politicians with empathy, The West Wing has injected into the culture a subversive competitor to the reigning values of political journalism"—which Miller views as rife with "cynicism." This bold subversion turns the weekly melodrama, by Miller's lights, into a sort of pluperfect documentary, redeeming a hopelessly fallen political culture by sheer force of its "humanizing instinct."

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