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."

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.

Of course, many of The West Wing's concerns belong on the public agenda, and occasionally they address real threats to civil liberties and social peace. But the dramatically declining membership rolls of the Christian Coalition and the results of polls tracking public opinion on the religious right's pet issues reveal that the specter of a theocratic seizure of the state, rhetorically exaggerated even at the height of the religious right's power, is a rapidly dimming mirage.

Nevertheless, Team Bartlet is constantly consumed by the minutiae of high cultural warfare. Examples are legion, and multiply weekly. In a second-season episode, "The Midterms," there's a high-handed showdown between Bartlet and one Dr. Jenna Jacobs—a moralizing radio talk-show host clearly modeled on Dr. Laura Schlessinger—at a White House reception for various radio eminences. Quizzing her on the biblical injunction against homosexuality as "an abomination," Bartlet takes her on a rapid-fire declamatory tour of the follies of biblical literalism, a punishing performance whose like has not been seen since the climax of Inherit the Wind: "I'm interested in selling my youngest daughter into slavery, as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7 ... what would a good price be?" Now, not only is this stacking the rhetorical deck heavily in Bartlet's favor (even Dr. Laura, bigoted though she can be, does not rest her castigation of homosexuality entirely on biblical literalism). It also provokes a rather enormous question: Why is Bartlet expending such heavy artillery and so much precious time on humiliating a radio talk-show host? And why is he unable to resist a final victory dance over her seated person and prostrated intellect—especially by invoking the majesty of his own presidential eminence over the discredited authority of biblical tradition? ("One last thing," he shouts. "While you may be mistaking this for your monthly meeting of the Ignorant Tight-Ass Club, in this building when the President stands, nobody sits.") The answer, of course, is that such displays—which occur nearly every week in Bartlet's White House—cost the Administration precisely nothing politically while ratcheting up its sense of cultural superiority exponentially.

The West Wing, in other words, plies a resolutely insular, therapeutic vision of presidential politics, one that often renders policymaking indistinguishable from the conduct of an encounter group. Indeed, in the thickets of controversy that crop up in the Bartlet Administration, the strongest objection to a policy or a decision to overstep protocol is usually that it doesn't feel right. And when the members of Team Bartlet chart a new policy course, it is because they agree that it suits the perceived national mood or because it springs (in the grand tradition of TV serials) from a profound personal experience. If one of the sixties' most enduring—if dubious—notions is that the personal is political, The West Wing operates from the converse: the political is, above all, personal. In perhaps the most decisive, melodramatic installment of the show—a late-first-season entry called "Let Bartlet Be Bartlet"—the President announces his determination to secure two key reform-minded appointees to the Federal Election Commission. His rationale has little to do with the current political playing field, or even with the prospects for meaningful reform, but turns, rather, on his plaintive appeal to his chief of staff, Leo McGarry (John Spencer): "I don't want to feel like this anymore."

Amid such high drama it requires a considerable effort of the will to recall that liberals belong to the strain of American political debate that has traditionally prided itself on skepticism about how matters of state power get minted into brute personal agendas. To put things another way, it's hard to imagine any of the show's champions or scriptwriters evincing much concern over, say, Richard Nixon's many funks on the job—let alone endorsing them as a sound basis for executive policymaking. But in furnishing its imaginary, cultural platform for the revival of liberal politics in America, The West Wing has also slipped into an uncritical cult of personality—much as the adoration of Bill Clinton has in the real-life house of liberalism. In so doing, The West Wing reminds us, down to the smallest details of character and plot resolution, of the very forces that have hollowed out the American liberal faith. In lieu of the majority-forging certainties of the New Deal, the Fair Deal, and the Great Society (and their campaigns against "economic royalists," "isolationists," segregationists, and the like) we find anxious self-examination, second-guessing of the news cycle, and protracted agonizing over the appearance of scandal and conflicts of interest. In place of stirring crusades for equality and justice (about which there is plenty of rhetoric) we see careful chartings and recalibrations of marginal, provisional influence by an executive branch that is unshakably wedded to a view of itself as "under siege, twenty-four hours a day," as Bartlet's chief of staff explains to a recently hired Republican legal aide.

The logic of these morally obtuse but deeply sentimental preenings of high-office holders is disturbing on many levels, but principally because it dramatizes something real: liberals, long sundered from the lineaments of any majoritarian politics, have succumbed to the worship of getting and holding power for its own sake. One saw this not merely in the Gore campaign's diehard (and ultimately self-destructive) scorched-earth efforts to recast the Florida vote in Gore's favor but also, more pivotally, in the dramatic force with which Clinton recast the presidency's reasons of state into reasons of self.

Indeed, the moral calculus of The West Wing's presidency is identical to that perfected by Bill Clinton: all the expenditures of political capital, all the day-to-day trench warfare over Capitol turf, the long-term health of the party and the short-term calendar of the national legislature, were subordinated to the expansion of executive self-regard, to the meaningless conceit of "not feeling like this anymore." Herein resided the stem-winding, therapeutic logic of the year-long national "conversation on race"; the periodic presidential apologies for world-historic wrongs which were usually strategic evasions of actual legislative responsibility; and the fussy feel-good conferences on teen violence and the media. And, needless to say, here sprang the fathomless victimology that choreographed perjury, suborned testimony, concealed evidence, and mounted dubiously timed bombing raids to prolong a grip on executive power that had long atrophied when it came to steering federal policy and national debate toward any meaningful goal beyond the bunker.

As one might expect, Bill Clinton is among The West Wing's biggest fans. He played host to members of the cast at a White House press-corps dinner, and cast members have turned up at DNC fundraisers, providing entertaining photo ops that illuminated the grand yet confused ambitions of both the TV show and the Clinton White House. He reportedly told Rob Lowe (who plays Bartlet's deputy communications director, Sam Seaborn) that the show is "renewing people's faith in public service." It's all a bit curious, since the high-minded Josiah Bartlet would seem to be such a pointed rebuke, in both his person and his policymaking, to Clinton. But in life, as on TV, claims of civic loyalty and reckonings of power, legitimacy, political right, and moral trespass—the stuff of history—provide feeble competition for the blinding power of personality. And it has been a long season of indulgently sentimentalizing the abuse of power. Augurs of the Boomer zeitgeist, from Toni Morrison to Joe Eszterhas to Tina Brown to Greil Marcus, agree that Clinton represents an emanation of a noble American tradition, a Huck-like backwoods avatar of charmingly transgressive appetites. He is half the sybaritic, exoticized, Elvis-style son of the South, tweaking the grim moralists and inquisitors who police the right's DMZ in the nation's culture combat, and half the aw-shucks poster child of the new global information order, cocking back his head and biting his lip wistfully as he conjures abiding visions of a bridge over the millennium. Before the nation's scandal-weary eyes Bill Clinton became a pop-cult fable of his own fond imagining, a fantasy figure for liberal partisans who have lost the taste for almost any politics save the full-throated prosecution of meaningless culture wars. It is but a short step from these sorts of reveries to the wholesale invention of a republic ruled by a benevolent great leader, briskly resetting our moral compass and flattering our lifestyle politics in the safety of our living rooms. In this sense, then, it is entirely fitting that Bill Clinton's most immediate legacy should be a TV show that lodges the structure of his personality firmly in our collective unconscious, even while strategically erasing its substance.

Of course, it may seem, with the show's enduring appeal in the dawn of the W. years, that these organizing tropes of the Clinton era are already moldering into harmless TV nostalgia, not unlike the imagineered 1950s of Happy Days, or the wide, loud, and burnt-out Ford and Carter caesura of That '70s Show. But this casual view of things underestimates the half-life of Clintonism in both reality and pop culture. George W. Bush demonstrated in his faux-empathic campaign of the conservative heart that Clintonism, being postmodern and post-ideological unto its innermost parts, works as deftly on the tax-cutting, privatizing right as it did within the often unruly union-and-activist ranks of the Democratic Party.

In much the same manner The West Wing continues to renew the peculiar, powerful cultural brief by which Clintonism has thrived—and will continue to thrive in the aftermath of the Clinton years. In 1992 candidate Bill Clinton proudly acknowledged that he "always wanted to be in the cultural elite"; The West Wing has extravagantly granted his wish, by apostrophizing his Administration (while, of course, airbrushing out its more embarrassing policy failures, crimes, and lapses of morality). But more than that, the enduring appeal of the show, in our popular and political cultures alike, is that it has performed a trick more powerful than probably even Clinton could have imagined. It has made him that most quintessentially American liege of that most desirable American dominion: as an archetype, a fable, a prototype for Jed Bartlet, Bill Clinton, through the good graces of Aaron Sorkin, has become the President of Television. We need some satire, and fast.