I was late to The West Wing party, but I fell pretty hard shortly after I finally made it through the pilot. The infatuation came swiftly and stayed a long time, and I thought it’d be fun and interesting to use this platform to explain why I haven’t tried a new show in two years, with the exception of my brief attempt to catch the House of Cards bandwagon.
The West Wing is a different kind of television program. It’s a fast-paced political drama that gives viewers access to all the parts of Washington so few get to see and interaction with small screen representation of D.C.’s power players as so many like to imagine them.
A good friend of mine calls The West Wing Aaron Sorkin’s liberal fantasy. He’s not wrong. The show is clearly one-sided in its portrayal of American political parties. But I think The West Wing has much to offer idealists irrespective of their ideologies. It’s a small ‘d’ democratic fantasy – a witty, honest, aspirational depiction of American politics and players as they could be, if smart, driven, attractive, left-leaning admirers of Washington got to write their stories.
And this is what it taught me.
Intellect is good.
President Josiah (Jed) Bartlet is intellect personified. Bartlet is Lincoln-esque, always telling stories, never passing up an opportunity to educate his staff about national parks, punctuation marks, or the best way to properly baste a turkey. His fictional press secretary and my real-life role model C.J. Cregg often encourages him to let up on a conversational style that makes him sound like a math professor – an especially tricky feat for Bartlet, a Nobel Laureate in Economics. During prep for a question-and-answer session about a Mars exploration mission, C.J. accuses President Bartlet of acting like a “know-it-all,” after which he trips up his communications team by converting the average temperature of Mars from Fahrenheit to Celsius in his head.
President Bartlet’s staff are crusaders for aptitude. There is a scene in Hartfield’s Landing, an episode chronicling his campaign for reelection, during which White House Communications Director Toby Ziegler pleads with his boss to come out swinging. “You’re not just folks. You’re not plainspoken,” Toby says. “Do not, do not, do not act like it.”
Republican presidential candidate Robert Ritchie represents an unfortunate national movement that esteems plain-spokenness and rebukes Ivy League educations. Ritchie has painted President Bartlet as an out-of-touch, New England elitist, and Bartlet wants to tread carefully. Any real-life candidate would. But Toby knows how to beat him: “Make this election about smart, and not. Make it about engaged, and not. Qualified, and not. Make it about a heavyweight. You’re a heavyweight. And you’ve been holding me up for too many rounds.”
The perspective through which The West Wing’s audience sees the show, the perspective of the main characters we grow to love, cherishes intellect. Thinkers are esteemed in this Washington, and professional political operatives like White House Chief of Staff Leo McGarry and his deputy Josh Lyman are willing to “scour the countryside” from Manchester, New Hampshire, to Houston, Texas, to find the gem politicians smart enough to lead the free world.
Therein lies my favorite aspect of my favorite show – intelligence and drive are encouraged everywhere, in everyone. In Isaac and Ishmael, a special episode dedicated to the memory of the victims of the September 11 attacks, Josh discusses the White House and American politics with a group of high school students on a field trip to D.C. He immediately notices Billy, an inquisitive kid whose eagerness and interest put him a little out of place. As the group leaves the West Wing, Josh, once a young idealist who spent all his formative years studying, stops Billy and sincerely encourages him, “Just keep doing what you’re doing.” That gets me, every time.
Semantics is important.
Words have meaning, and using inappropriate descriptors of social and political problems that don’t adequately communicate their complexity is a rhetorical disease plaguing the U.S. political system. The West Wing is an escape from oversimplification.
One of my favorite Bartlet quotes comes from an episode leading up to the kick-off of his reelection campaign. In response to an outside consultant’s push for more easily digestible vocabulary, the president insists, “It’s not our job to appeal to the lowest common denominator. It’s our job to raise it. If you’re going to be the ‘Education President,’ it’d be nice not to hide that you have an education.” If only every elected official and talking head subscribed to this rhetorical mantra.
White House Deputy Communications Director Sam Seaborn is The West Wing’s rhetoric watch. He elevates the Office of the President by ensuring that its voice is powerful and accurate. Sam is clearly a Democrat, but he doesn’t hesitate to call out members of his own party for linguistic faux pas. When congressional Democrats want Sam to include language disparaging wealthy Americans in a presidential address – a la the current administration’s recent “the rich don’t pay their fair share” communications campaign – Sam pushes back.
Henry, last fall, every time your boss got on the stump and said, “It’s time for the rich to pay their fair share,” I hid under a couch and changed my name. I left Gage Whitney making $400,000 a year, which means I paid 27 times the national average in income tax. I paid my fair share, and the fair share of 26 other people. And I’m happy to, because that’s the only way it’s going to work. And it’s in my best interest that everybody is able to go to schools and drive on roads. But I don’t get 27 votes on Election Day. The fire department doesn’t come to my house 27 times faster, and the water doesn’t come out of my faucet 27 times hotter. The top one percent of wage earners in this country pays for 22 percent of this country. Let’s not call them names while they’re doing it, is all I’m saying.
The relentless pursuit of solid oratory is one of The West Wing’s chief themes, and it’s a noble cause. No elected official, real or imaginary, can fathom a workable solution to a national problem if the language barriers we place on ourselves – the tendency to lean on sound bite-y, simplistic stuff – inadvertently create an arena in which politicians can only talk past one another. Words have meaning, and The West Wing writers created a pretend Washington where words can be both beautiful and precise.
Dissent is necessary.
The West Wing persistently underscores the importance of worthy opposition. The show is seasoned with smart, capable Republicans who keep in check our favorite main characters.
Ainsley Hayes, a conservative commentator who lands a job as Associate White House Counsel after she gives Sam a run for his money on cable television, eventually earns the respect of her liberal colleagues by being smart. President Bartlet’s decision to hire her is indicative of his aversion to groupthink. Leo McGarry tells Ainsley, “The president likes smart people who disagree with him. He wants to hear from you.”
In The Supremes, the White House staff is tasked with finding a replacement for a recently deceased Supreme Court justice, and Josh – troubled by moderates who remain in the middle solely because it’s comfortable and unthreatening – makes the case for a deal with Senate Republicans. Josh and Toby want Evelyn Baker Lang, of the “liberal lion” legal mind variety, to replace the current chief justice, giving Republicans a conservative, Christopher Mulready, in exchange for a speedy confirmation. Toby immediately recognizes that a dissenting conservative opinion is a necessary cog in a Supreme Court handing down binding decisions to a pluralistic society. He admits to the president, “I hate [Mulready]. I hate him, but he’s brilliant. And the two of them together fighting like cats and dogs. But it works.”
My favorite dissenting Republican voice in The West Wing is Senator Arnold Vinick, a California centrist who runs for president in season seven. Vinick intends to win 50 states by running on an issue platform that forsakes the social for the economic. He is a reasoned statesman hell-bent on running a positive campaign, and his willingness to shed light on politically damaging decisions during drop-dead press conferences keeps his Democratic opponent guessing. He loses largely (perhaps solely) as a result of a nuclear accident in San Andreo – or because The West Wing is a liberal fantasy. But he does so gracefully, after which he accepts a position in the Santos Cabinet. President-Elect Matt Santos, like his predecessor, recognizes the value of keeping smart, dissenting opinions in the room, especially the oval one.
Politics should inspire.
There’s a reason people get emotionally attached to this show. Aspiring politicos want to be inspired, and The West Wing’s writers knew that.
They caught our attention and surreptitiously demanded engagement in our own real-life political venues – from the ballot box to the Internet to the office – because they made it look weighty and worthwhile, and fun. I’ve always been an admirer of the U.S. political system and its story, its uniqueness, its evolution, its endurance. The West Wing conjures up within its audience this awe of the political system the show scrutinizes and, in doing so, celebrates. The West Wing makes you want to work there.
Jed Bartlet articulated it best: “‘We hold these truths to be self-evident,’ they said, ‘that all men are created equal.’ Strange as it may seem, that was the first time in history that anyone had ever bothered to write that down. Decisions are made by those who show up.”
Politics, through this lens, doesn’t have a crooked connotation anymore. Politics – as a profession, a hobby, a conduit of social and economic change – introduces us to new perspectives, challenges we hadn’t considered, opportunities worth exploring, and friends, defenders of dissenting opinions, who make us smarter.
The West Wing started with the conviction that a small group of thoughtful and committed citizens can change the world, and with good reason. It’s the only thing that ever has.