The West Wing is one of the finest shows to ever appear on television, and I’m only sorry I didn’t watch it during its original run, which began 14 years ago. It’s funny, people refer to The West Wing as a 90s show, but only 10 of the 154 episodes aired in that decade. But it was obvious the show, particularly in the early seasons, was heavily influenced by Clinton-era topics like Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, free-trade agreements, and even gun control. When Aaron Sorkin’s White House drama appeared on Netflix in the summer of 2012, I binge-watched the entire seven seasons in under three months. Yes, the show is that good.
Aaron Sorkin’s writing style is both loved and loathed, and he is often accused of using his shows to advance his own political beliefs. If there’s a true manifestation of that claim, it would be Sorkin’s current HBO show, The Newsroom. But there’s no question the first four “Sorkin” years of The West Wing were full of liberal political idealism. Take for instance Sorkin’s direct rebuttal to President Clinton’s 1996 State of the Union speech when the president said, “the era of big government is over.” In the West Wing episode titled “He Shall, from Time to Time…,” the fictional President Josiah “Jed” Bartlet (Martin Sheen) plans to use this very same Clinton line in his upcoming State of the Union speech. But Communications Director Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff), after an episode filled with his bellowing defense of the National Endowment for the Arts, persuaded Bartlet to go a different direction. “Government can be a place where people come together and where no one gets left behind…an instrument of good,” said Ziegler. This is the Sorkin idealism that is rich throughout the first few seasons of the series.
But is there anything wrong with a romantic and optimistic view of how things could work in Washington? Nobody is deluded enough to believe the West Wing could pass for a documentary, but shouldn’t we strive to live up to it’s idealized take on politics in the nation’s capital? West Wing characters are not angels, they are flawed just like you and I, but at their core, all of the main characters are doing what they think is right.
In episode 19 of the first season, “Let Bartlet Be Bartlet,” the White House staff grows increasingly frustrated at the lack of progress by their administration. The episode reaches its pinnacle with a great scene between Chief of Staff Leo McGarry (the late great John Spencer) and President Bartlet where Leo reminds the president that some things are more important than reelection. Leo, in a great moment of liberal idealism, walks to his office to tell his staff, “We’re gonna lose some of these battles, and we might even lose the White House, but we’re not gonna be threatened by issues, we’re gonna put ‘em front and center. We’re gonna raise the level of public debate in this country and let that be our legacy.” He then asks Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford), “That sound all right to you Josh?” To which Lyman replies, “I serve at the pleasure of the president of the United States,” with each of the main characters following in turn, echoing that sentiment.
It’s not that The West Wing ignored the realities of Washington, D.C. whether it be narcissistic politicians or callous lobbyists. But the cast of likable characters who made up the fictional West Wing world, often rise above the circus-like antics of Washington politics. I think Sorkin’s overarching theme for The West Wing was to say that people can be good, Washington can work, we simply need to put in the hard work necessary to make it work, and it wouldn’t hurt to take the cynicism down a notch or two.
And this is where I think Washington, D.C., and for that matter the rest of the nation, could use a real-life lesson from the fictional West Wing. I’m just about as cynical as they come, but I choose to keep my bitterness and sarcasm in check when it comes to important policies and issues that affect people’s lives. I can hold the view that politicians are adversely affected by big money in politics while also holding the view that there are many government workers who care about the work they do, and who want to make a difference in the world. You can call that a liberal fantasy and you can call that idealism, but I believe the world is what we make it. If we are cynical, and choose to run government within that framework, we should expect to get nothing more from government. But if we believe government can be an extension of the community, that government can be a source of good, and we recognize that there are fellow citizens just like you and I working to make government better, then we should expect the best government human beings are capable of in the 21st century. If you think government is the problem, then how motivated can you be to make it work? But if you think government can work, if we just make an effort to see it through, and with a healthy dose of idealism, we are bound to produce a better product, whether that’s in government, business, or any walk of life.