"The West Wing": America's Finest Hour?

— Joe Auciello

"The West Wing" has become the season’s best, most absorbing, most ambitious series (despite an unrelenting mushiness in the form of its sappy fictional president ...) —Caryn James, The New York Times, December 26, 1999

THE DAILY FARE of television is so bland and boring, such an insult to the intelligence, that "The West Wing" sparkles by comparison. Created by writer Aaron Sorkin ("A Few Good Men," "The American PresidThe West Wing" is a rarity – a shrewdly written television show that places national politics, political leaders, and their senior staff into the center of a weekly drama.

New last fall, "The West Wing" is also, as the New York Times TV critic says, the best series of the season. Thoughtful, politically aware people can eagerly look forward to it every week – until we begin to reflect on what we are watching.

A fast-paced character ensemble series with interlocking story lines, "The West Wing" highlights the behind-the-scenes doings of the president and his White House team, led by Chief of Staff Leo McGarry (played by John Spencer) and Communications Director Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff).

The central characters are easily identifiable types (the gruff but tender boss, the bleeding heart liberal, the cocky yuppie, etc.) who are often at odds. But each character also contains another side, another emotional layer, that gives the show its feeling of depth and realism.

It’s easy to enjoy the show. The dialogue is entertaining and quick, with more wit than is typical for television. "The West Wing" aims for the feel of realism and generally succeeds: The characters are engaging and sympathetic, the conflicts credible and important, the resolutions often compromised and bittersweet.

"Yes," the audience murmurs to itself, nodding with knowing understanding, "just like real life."

The show also captivates on a technical level. The fast, fluid camera movement creates an aura of urgency, as if catching the busy characters at their vital work. From the very first scene "The West Wing" plunges viewers into the midst of the action, yanking them into a sixty-minute adrenaline rush.

Typically, the camera will follow two or more characters in brisk conversation on the way from one office to another as other characters dart in and out. The hectic pace, too, feels right and adds to the credibility of the show.

While "The West Wing" portrays the workings of a liberal Democratic president, Josiah Bartlet (played by a puckish Martin Sheen) and his administration, the show is carefully calculated to appeal, as well, to a Republican audience.

Liberal viewers respond sympathetically to liberal characters, while the flaws and missteps of these characters entertain conservatives.

Realism As Fantasy

The secret of the show’s critical success is that it gives viewers their desired image of America. "The West Wing" taps into a real longing and creates a fantasy America that seems to be better than the one most people live in.

Granted the program’s originality and wit, "The West Wing" nonetheless remains a typical television series in at least one vital way: It offers social conditioning as entertainment.

The show offers a glimpse of the country everyone would like to inhabit. If "The West Wing," already nominated for a Golden Globe award, succeeds in capturing a large Nielsen rating – a Brill’s Content cover story cites a figure of thirteen million viewers for the show – its popular success will reveal much about the nation’s political concerns and hopes.

Despite its progressive veneer, the underlying values of the show promote nationalism, patriotism, and liberal racism. It’s a strategy calculated to maximize market share. As the president’s chief of staff said in one episode, "That’s our constituency.
It’s the cost of doing business."

In the fantasy world of "The West Wing," America’s rulers are humane people whose domestic and foreign policies are guided by decency, compassion and God. The world’s only superpower promotes democracy and goodwill among nations whenever and wherever it can.

On "The West Wing," the U.S. government does not support dictators or wage war for oil. Nor, apparently, does the government support the International Monetary Fund which imposes less visible but highly effective and brutal economic dictatorships over poor and Third World countries.

This fictional United States government employs military force only after egregious provocation – the Syrian Defense Ministry ordering the destruction of an unarmed U.S. transport plane, for instance. In retaliation to this unprovoked Syrian terrorism which kills some two hundred people, President Bartlet – instead of the predictable "proportional response" – understandably and angrily vows righteous revenge: "I am going to blow them off the face of the earth with the fury of God’s own thunder."

The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, along with the president’s own chief of staff, delicately talk President Bartlet down from this position, which could have included the carpet bombing of Damascus. Disinclined to harm innocent civilians, the president yields the point and opts instead for the military-approved "proportional response" – blowing up some recently evacuated Syrian ammunition dumps.

It is an endearing surrender. As his justifiable rage wanes, the audience’s sympathy with President Bartlet rises. His anger shows him to be human; his thoughtfulness shows him to be humane. Viewers feel they understand this president and, by extension, U.S. foreign policy. With that understanding comes approval. This scene is just one of many masterful manipulations of the audience’s emotions.

Sap City

So, the New York Times TV critic missed an underlying point; the show isn’t popular "despite an unrelenting mushiness in the form of its sappy fictional president." Rather, the president’s earnestness, optimism and personal virtue are an essential part of the show’s appeal.

After President Clinton’s escapades ("I did not have sexual relations with that woman ..."), Josiah Bartlet is a welcome relief, albeit a temporary one – only an hour a week. As a fictional character, Bartlet is, of course, too good to be true.

The president is not the only hero. Even government bureaucrats are caring individuals with a social conscience. In one episode the business card of the Communications Director is found on the body of a homeless man who had frozen to death in the night. Evidently, the card was left by accident in the pocket of an old coat that had
been donated to Good Will.

Summoned by the police for routine questioning, the Communications Director notices by the insignia the deceased had been wearing that the homeless man was a veteran. Rules are stretched, even broken, so that a full military burial is afforded to this man whom the Communications Director had never met.

The president has some strong words for the bureaucrat who had forged his signature on the document which ordered the funeral, but since it was all for a good cause, they make up before the credits roll. Compassion and enlightenment encompasses the show’s staff. It’s government as you wish it would be.

Real life is less heartwarming. On January 22 the Washington Post reported that city’s first winter death from exposure. "A man [who] was found dead on a sidewalk ... was wearing a black hat, boots, sweat pants and a brown coat but no shirt when he was found in 22-degree weather, police said." According to the director of the county homeless shelter, "In the past few days, we’re squeezing the walls, all of us, to fit people in."

The White House made no comment about the death, and none was expected.

One-Dimensional Minorities

"The West Wing’s" enlightenment seems, at first glance, to extend to its Black cast members. Black actors play varied characters on the show, so that one, for instance, portrays an aide while another is Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Black actors also have nonspeaking roles as Secret Service agents, etc. The casting is true to life; in assigning these roles the show reinforces its sense of realism.

That realism, though, only runs skin deep. All of these characters are afflicted by a politically correct Hollywood liberalism that restricts Blacks to one-dimensional modes, with old, negative stereotypes replaced by new, positive stereotypes. The lazy, shiftless and foolish are now hard-working, self-sacrificing and wise. Black people, in other words, have all become Tonto. That’s supposed to be progress.

African-American characters on "The West Wing," at every level, possess earthy wisdom and speak simple but profound truths that positively influence their white employers. Hollywood African Americans, precisely because of their race, lack sophistication but possess depth. They embody folk virtue which white people can appreciate but not articulate.

One episode, "Five Votes Down," opens with the president grandly predicting passage of his gun-control bill, a mild piece of legislation that would restrict sales of weapons such as grenade launchers. Five members of his own party, though, have broken ranks, which would ensure the defeat of the bill.

For various reasons, each more petty and selfish than the next, every politician acts without regard to principle and pursues blatant self-interest – every politician save one, a Black congressman. He alone opposes the president’s tepid gun-control bill because it does not go far enough to help "young Black men on the street."

The Black congressman in this episode is the only character to act with integrity and a regard for justice. In Hollywood, Blacks are gritty icons of Real Life, and wisdom is measured in melanin.

"We want to be treated like human beings," Malcolm X demanded in 1965. Hollywood in general and "The West Wing" in particular does not dare approach that standard. The Hollywood African American is a plaster saint, a false figure denied the range of human feelings and behaviors which are routinely granted to whites.

Most often, Black characters exist only as foils for white characters. True, it’s a step beyond Step’n Fetchit, but the Noble Primitive is still less than human. The treatment of Black characters is symptomatic of the show’s surface liberalism, which disguises a set of values entirely palatable to this country’s right wing.

Critique vs. Complacency

Unlike a "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," or Frank Capra films generally, pitting an honest, common man against corrupt government fatcats, "The West Wing" presents government officials as if they were the decent, principled men and women.

President Josiah Bartlet and his staff can be partisan and hard-nosed – viewers expect and enjoy the political rough-and-tumble – but these ultimate Washington insiders, if not always decent and good, at least strive for virtue and feel sorrowful when they fall short of these values.

Beneath all of Frank Capra’s sentimentality and fluff lay a hard nugget of social criticism: the demand for moral and political reform. Capra’s failing was a narrowness of vision; he believed politics could be cleansed by the just action of noble men. Beneath "The West Wing’s" sentimentality lies only complacency and the wish for make believe.

A Norman Rockwell illustration come to life, "The West Wing" lacks any critical dimension; it believes politics already has been set straight by a few good men and even fewer women.

But what, after all, is so bad about mere escapist entertainment? Even if every TV viewer in America shut off the set, yanked the cable, and turned the satellite dish into a huge bird bath, and then dutifully read the Great Books or even the Little Lenin Library, the world would not be a fundamentally different place. Americans would be better educated but not necessarily better.

The person who wants an hour or so of unchallenging entertainment is not a boob or a Philistine, just someone looking for rest and diversion after a hard day at work. Nonetheless, a television show about politics can’t help but be political. People who know to check the fat and cholesterol content of the food they eat might do well to check the ideological content of the programs they watch.

On "The West Wing" viewers are led to believe that the government does not act on behalf of the capitalist class. The real rulers of the country are notably absent from the Oval Office. Instead, the show nourishes the cherished notion that government is of, by and for the people.

"The West Wing" serves up a fantasy that invites the audience to love their oppressors; in fact, it tells the audience to see their oppressors as their friends. It’s an entertaining delusion that dulls desire for a better reality.

It’s merely television, after all, so standards should not be too high, but a show that strives for better than the common fare could attempt to stir its audience’s imagination and hopes. "The West Wing" doesn’t even try. "The season’s best, most absorbing, most ambitious series" is a political narcotic daydream that stimulates nothing but a thirst for more of the same.

ATC 86, May-June 2000