At a time when the TV show “American Idol” garners greater levels of voter participation than actual American elections, there is reason to question whether the entertainment industry adds much civic value to our society. But viewers of NBC’s “The West Wing,” which will be taken off the air after seven seasons next month, know that there is a positive counter-example, making the show’s demise all the sadder.
Web sites devoted to the show detail the life and times of President Josiah Bartlet’s fictional administration. Boosters who once printed “Don’t blame me, I voted for Bartlet” bumper stickers are now posting depressive paragraphs on blogs, pondering life after “The West Wing.”
Most political dramas do not provoke this outpouring of affection. For that matter, most television shows do not deserve mention on the editorial page of a newspaper, but “The West Wing” has always been different. Since it appeared in 1999, during the drifting last years of the Clinton administration, the show presented an idealistic and witty take on U.S. politics to the American people. Martin Sheen played President Bartlet, a stubborn but principled New Englander who served as the show’s imperfect moral anchor. Never syrupy, but nonetheless free from spin, hypocrisy, and craven instincts, President Bartlet symbolized the better angels of our nature. Hungry for evident integrity from public officials, people responded.
Just as medical school applications surged after the initial success of the television show “ER,” “The West Wing” inspired many young people in the Clinton and Bush era to believe that public service could be a noble and exciting calling. Fiction carried forward a sense of civic purpose where reality sometimes failed to inspire.
When I worked at City Hall, “West Wing” videotapes would be passed around among different staffers the day after the show aired. We joked that we needed to work on our witty banter to rise to the level of the televised cast.
In the rapid-fire scripts penned by the show’s creator, Aaron Sorkin, there were not only the obligatory personal dramas but also useful lessons in political and governmental problem-solving. Issues that might have laid dormant on Page A24 of newspaper were all of a sudden thrust into prime time. It educated while also entertaining, boosting the intellectual quality of water cooler conversations across the country.
There were detailed campaign strategies, endless conflicts in the Middle East, coups in Haiti, immigration debates, a debunking of WTO protests, and illegally ordered assassinations of terrorist-sponsor-state leaders. In one memorable episode, President Bartlet employed a unique interpretation of the Antiquities Act to set aside a piece of national park land and save it from drilling. The show also embraced the mechanics of constitutional crises, from the resignation of the vice president under a sex scandal to a temporary assumption of presidential powers by the Speaker of the House.
Some episodes had the resonance of fine film. The epic episode “Two Cathedrals” drove far off the normal TV trail with President Bartlet cursing at God in Latin while stubbing a cigarette out on the floor of the National Cathedral. He is subsequently visited by the ghost of his former secretary, who coaches him through a crisis of personal and political faith as he admits that he lied to the American people and now faces a seemingly impossible re-election without the support of his wife. The closing scene was accompanied the Dire Straits’ song “Brothers in Arms”, and it is something that I still watch for courage when times get tough. “The West Wing” inspires that kind of talismanic loyalty and the best of it bears repeated viewing.
In recent years, with Aaron Sorkin gone, the show took on a more formulaic television drama feel, sort of “ER” in the White House, responding to crises without ever reaching the same level of poetry that had been so consistent throughout the first and second season.
But in this last year, with the presidential race going on to succeed President Bartlet, the show regained its pacing as it ran through the difficult logistics of a presidential campaign that placed a moderate Republican against a Democratic dark horse. The season featured a live, real-time presidential debate on policy issues that was at least as substantive as anything in 2004.
Tragedy struck the show this past December, as John Spencer, the actor who played the beloved chief of staff and vice-presidential candidate Leo McGarry died of a heart attack in real life after suffering one on screen the previous season. This past Sunday, his character on the show died on Election Day and next week he will be buried. It is a season of endings, even as new beginnings are hinted towards.
But “The West Wing” might just have one more penetrating message for the American people that places them well ahead of the Beltway crowd. Rumor has it that the victorious Democratic candidate will pick his Republican former opponent as vice president to form a bipartisan unity government. It envisions an alternative to Washington’s pervasive polarization that might allow “The West Wing” to prove one final time that popular culture can communicate big ideas more convincingly than a thousand political action committees.