So Much Drama
My TV binge for phase one of the pandemic was The West Wing, the White House drama that soothed distraught Americans during the transition from the Clinton presidency to Bush-Cheney.
In today’s age of “prestige cable,” I never dreamed I would default back to network television, but my go-tos—A French Village, The Americans—were becoming the antithesis of the warm bedtime bath one longs for during quarantine; more like moral hypothermia. The prestige TV rule of “anything goes” had grown too painful in these everything-has-gone end times. I needed something blood-free (no more than one character dying per season), uplifting without being sappy, and smart enough to teach me something new about a familiar address.
Aaron Sorkin, the creator of The West Wing, delivered on two and a half out of three. (President Jed Bartlet/Martin Sheen sometimes pushed his luck on #2, but then the writers let you know they knew that by throwing in a reference to his “Uncle Fluffy” routine.) Yet what the show taught me ended up being the opposite of what it professes to be about. Back then, democracy was just there, a glacier that had been and would be around for centuries.
I got the idea to revisit The West Wing (which I saw only sporadically after it began airing in 1999) from my millennial son-in-law-to-be, who had watched the entire series twice, all seven seasons, 22 episodes each. I attributed his fascination partly to the fact that he was born in Siberia, and though he left at age two, and his family achieved all-American suburban prosperity, surely this pageant of US politics looked stranger to him than to someone who took “greatest country in the world” as a God-given article of faith. And so it was through his eyes that I found myself watching the series, across a gap both generational and cultural.
At first I was distracted by my own professional bias as an author. I loved Sorkin’s self-referential nods in the early episodes to the Passion of the Writer, as White House communications director Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff) and his deputy, Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe), indulged the “Will I produce something equal to the moment/have I lost my talent?” angst that haunts any major literary effort, including the State of the Union address. Sometimes the sheer faultlessness of the dialogue launched me from my couch to genuflect. An exchange between Toby and C. J. Cregg (Allison Janney, press secretary) in a New Hampshire bar during the primary went something like this:
Toby: Want to play pool?
C. J.: I don’t play pool.
Toby: Want to play for money?
C. J.: Sure.
Mostly it was hard not to get lost in a then-versus-now festival of compare and contrast. There were the predictable constants—the carnage of Middle East recrimination (though the show’s critique of Islamic extremism felt pretty audacious) and the fatalistic frustration of liberals. (Plus some unexpected continuities: Medicare-for-all, the 25th Amendment, the shame of a presidential trip to the White House bunker.) But it felt jarringly civilized to hear characters air the best arguments on both sides, in an honest-disagreement model of politics. And the last season’s pitting of Bartlet’s Democratic heir, Jimmy Smits as Matt Santos, against a liberal Republican, Alan Alda’s Arnold Vinick, made me practically weep for bygones.
As the twinning stories of the two White Houses on my TV screen grew more surreal, I began to “process” The West Wing not so much as a young Russian-American might but as the timeless Martian would, wondering, Who are these humans? The show’s exuberant elitism—Bartlet cannot be a mere Nobelist in economics but is also a 10-dimensional chess player—started to seem like hubris. (The chess game episode was reenacted onstage in the recent pre-election West Wing comeback.) To the extent that there are villains, they end up handling the regrettable dirty work of American irreproachability, as when John Goodman, playing the Republican Speaker of the House as Genghis Khan, comes to Bartlet’s rescue after the president has ordered the assassination of a foreign ally sponsoring anti-American terrorism. Goodman rips the pearls off the pearl-clutching press, explaining, in essence, We did it because we can, and, you know, because America Is Good.
As for the not so good, the topic of race is rendered through the rosy “best and brightest” lens—the Joint Chiefs’ Admiral Percy Fitzwallace (John Amos) doing Colin Powell and Charlie Young (Dulé Hill), the president’s body man, representing the upward march of Black youth. And with the exception of the domestic terrorists who target Charlie, the constituency Bartlet calls “the Church of I Hate You” remains offstage, and there is no inkling that the cult’s high priest could conceivably occupy the West Wing.
One of the stunning harbingers of our current moment in history was a 2016 study finding that only 30 percent of millennials think democracy is “essential.” I had always assumed that belief in democracy was no less automatic than, say, belief in ice cream. But the loop of futility unfolding on The West Wing made the Martian in my head interrupt the Baby Boomer to say, “This system is nuts.” Hardly anything positive gets done in even this idealized fantasy. Progress is hostage to the election cycle, aiming low becomes habit, and an occasional gleam of the greater good is eclipsed by unforeseeable disaster. In one of the more unsatisfying twists, considering that personal integrity is the show’s most sacred “norm,” Toby, the bracing moral scold, faces criminal prosecution. But all that was an epoch ago, and the writers and the smart bipartisan insiders advising them had little reason to question the way democracy was practiced in Sorkinland. As with anything that’s going to be around forever, doom is discernible only to the prophets.
The series ends on that prophetic hint of doubt, as the departing Jed Bartlet stares out a White House window on Inauguration Day. Seeing the pain on his face, the First Lady, Stockard Channing’s Abbey (thoracic surgeon, Harvard Med), comforts him. “You did a lot of good, Jed,” she says, repeating “a lot of good” with a devastating insistence that made me think of Scarlett O’Hara’s “tomorrow is another day.” Then the strings cue the opening credits for the last time, giving the audience a chance to ponder: What good did they do? The bittersweet answer comes at the end of that season finale as President Santos tackles his agenda. “What’s next?” he asks his staff. It’s the line Bartlet used to run his meetings, signaling his impatience to get on with the work of the greatest country in the world. We understand that what’s next will be more of the same, but the triumph of the system is in the identity of the new man uttering those words. The idea for the first Latino US president reportedly came to the writers when they saw Barack Obama’s breakout speech at the 2004 Democratic convention.
The final word of The West Wing belongs to the legacy-insecure ex-president: “Tomorrow.” Who could have guessed that, in a not-so-distant tomorrow, “What’s next?” would be an existential cry of national survival.
This essay appeared in the fall issue of Radcliffe Magazine.
Diane McWhorter was the 2011–2012 Mildred Londa Weisman Fellow at Radcliffe. She is the author of the Pulitzer Prize–winning Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama—The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution (Simon & Schuster, 2001).