‘Every once in a while… every once in a while, there’s a day with an absolute right and an absolute wrong, but those days almost always include body counts. Other than that, there aren’t very many unnuanced moments in leading a country that’s way too big for ten words. I’m the President of the United States, not the President of the people who agree with me. And by the way, if the left has a problem with that, they should vote for somebody else.’ President Josiah Bartlet
‘The West Wing’ was an amazing experiment in smart TV. It was a series of political seminars on governing and should be compulsory viewing for anyone in the Obama administration. It was a throwback to great liberal TV shows such as ‘Lou Grant’, ‘Cagney and Lacey’ and ‘Quincy’ – all shows not afraid to wear their ‘issued-based drama’ hearts on their sleeves. It was also a reminder of the power of words and the magic of rhetoric – that sometimes, big things are best said in a big way.
Much of the drama’s strength comes from its characters and the actors who play them. Martin Sheen, warm, cerebral yet steely as President Bartlet, the apex of the pyramid; Leo McGarry, the tough but loveable Chief of Staff, played by the superb and sadly missed John Spencer; CJ Cregg, the wonderful Press Secretary, a role performed with such aplomb by Allison Janney; Josh – the dynamic, obsessive and idealistic Deputy to Leo and Toby, the troubled, curmudgeonly, driven conscience of the series. What administration wouldn’t be privileged to have such a team in place? What state wouldn’t be fortunate to have them governing their country? From the ever loyal Charlie Young to always wise Dolores Landingham, the show had a troop of memorable characters portrayed by a superb ensemble cast.
’The West Wing’ was almost painfully reverential towards the idea of a Just Ruler, i.e. Bartlett. But this idealism was one of the show’s enduring attractions. This fictional White House contrasted painfully with the Bush years: a President committed to ethical foreign policy, an administration willing to ‘Let Bartlet be Bartlet’, one that wasn’t afraid to look and sound intelligent and one which had an approach to the Middle-East that few Presidents have been able to take. The show’s creator, Aaron Sorkin, provided his viewers with an impressive political education combined with wit, humour and pathos. The programme was rarely dull and mostly left the viewer feeling optimistic about how problems can be solved and things changed for the better.
Yet in contrast to this sense of optimism and idealism, the show addressed the realism behind the ideal. The Bartlet White House took opinion polls on everything; it highlighted the politics of personal destruction and the also the ruthlessness involved in wielding power. Bartlet has to routinely weigh issues and decide on the greater good and, often, this is what’s electorally doable rather than what’s right. Leo sometimes operates like an old-style Chicago Boss, sending out his ward-soldiers to marshal the machine for a vote. Josh knows that compromises can betray election pledges; in Mario Cuomo’s phrase, repeated by Leo, ‘We campaign in poetry and govern in prose’.
Issues are at the heart of each episode. To give just two instances: In ‘Take this Sabbath Day’, Bartlet has Old Testament-like power in deciding whether to commute a federally imposed death-sentence. It’s an award-winning summation of all the moral and ethical considerations around Capital Punishment. Bartlet’s team and the President are largely opposed to the Death Penalty but all know that Democrats since Dukakis have to take the pledge and support state-sponsored execution. The President is still a good man after making his decision but political implications outweigh moral and religious beliefs when the ultimate choice is made. In ‘Posse Comitatus’ Bartlet considers the morality of a secret military operation to assassinate a terrorist working for an ostensibly friendly Gulf State. In a post 9-11 World, the scriptwriters are conscious of not making ‘The West Wing’ like ‘24’ – anything does not go…but some things, do.
As a series, ‘The West Wing; made us look to the better angels of natures. It regarded political leaders with respect, not ridicule. It argued that democratic change is possible, not illusory. And it said that when it comes to vision, the ability to transform society for the better and the role of powerful, democratic institutions, the era of Big Government is no longer over.