The Feel-Good Presidency

The pseudo-politics of The West Wing  
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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?

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."

It's true that the show eagerly displays its own stirringly "human" themes on its sleeve—as is the case in the nighttime-TV "workplace" serials about hospitals, law firms, and police investigative units on which The West Wing is clearly modeled. But since its subject is the nation's politics (and its tacit mission is to revive sagging liberal spirits), The West Wing steers wide of the thorny moral conflicts that turn up in those life-or-death TV venues, in which petty personal agendas kick up disasters and catastrophes galore. Instead it offers a pointedly sunny weekly fable about the unassailable motives and all-too-human foibles of the nation's governing class which verges on the Capra-esque.

Reportedly, Sorkin—who developed the show out of material left over from his screenplay for the Rob Reiner feature film The American President—had not intended the President to be a central character on The West Wing. But here as in American political life, the President has swollen over time to soak up most of the dramatic interest, even though the formulas that Sorkin favors (previously his most celebrated writing credit was the military-courtroom drama A Few Good Men) make Bartlet a two-dimensional glyph of implausible virtue. He is charismatic and quietly omnicompetent, à la Bill Clinton, but viewers are forcefully reminded that he does not share Clinton's (or John F. Kennedy's) priapic weaknesses.

But all this tight moral choreography comes up considerably short of serving as a prescription for even a convincing imaginary liberal revival. In fact, sustained exposure to the logic of the show's plot conventions, the jittery policy patter of its characters, and (perhaps most of all) its sonorous faux nobility inspires a singular distrust. In particular, the way the show strives to dramatize the earnest inner torments of what Christopher Lasch called "the caring class" produces a civic emptiness far hollower than that resounding through either of our major parties.

The show's obsession with feeling also clearly impels its choice of subject matter. The Bartlet Administration's key internal conflicts and legislative rallying cries oscillate mainly within the narrow register of lifestyle liberalism, the stealth ideology that fuels Hollywood as it did the Clinton presidency. The heroic outbursts from The West Wing's lead characters are almost always directed at the forces of cultural reaction gathering in the heartland: the religious right, anti-gay moralists, creationists, advocates of anti-abortion terror, tough-on-crime yahoos, and shrill defenders of the Second Amendment. Bartlet himself has been a collateral victim of a white supremacist's assassination attempt on his black aide, Charlie Young (Dulé Hill). His White House dotes on hate-crimes legislation and also longs, bizarrely, for a high-profile showdown with the religious right over the currently moot constitutional question of school prayer. These symbolic posturings can only spring from the Administration's sense of itself as a missionary outpost in a hostile and benighted culture.

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