“The West Wing” clearly leaned left in its politics. Yet the most salient feature of Aaron Sorkin’s early 21st-century drama was aspirational, an element thrown into stark relief by the NBC series’ approach to presidential debates and selecting Supreme Court Justices, two parts of the political process currently very much in the news.
Perhaps most notably, given the tumult unleashed by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, was the show’s vision for how to resolve a logjam caused by the rift between a liberal president and an intransigent Congress. Far from settling for a mediocre candidate, a 2004 episode, titled “The Supremes,” hatched a grand compromise, allowing a liberal lion (played by Glenn Close) to become Chief Justice and a Scalia-like conservative to join the court.
Obviously, that would never happen, any more than the way “The West Wing” dealt with presidential debates, amid a campaign subplot that was by far its most prescient flourish. Two years before Barack Obama faced off against John McCain, the series featured a liberal minority Democrat (Jimmy Smits) running against a venerable Republican moderate from the west (Alan Alda), with the former coming out on top.
The fictional election, however, followed the most fictional of debates, one in which the candidates publicly renounced the highly structured format and decided on the fly to simply mix things up by going toe to toe, throwing out the carefully orchestrated rules. As much as the current crop of candidates talk over moderators and ignore the little bells signaling that they’ve run out of time to talk, it’s hard to imagine any of them having much stomach for that sort of unfiltered back and forth.
Many conservatives, not surprisingly, dismissed “The West Wing” as another liberal fantasy out of Hollywood. After all, where else could a sitting president – in the premiere, no less – waltz into a meeting with members of the religious right and tell them to “get your fat a—es out of my White House”?
Still, as with the way he depicted media in multiple shows, most notably “The Newsroom” but also “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip,” Sorkin’s main push – and indeed, his form of patriotism – was really an appeal to the nobler aspects within these callings. While he presented the challenges and impediments to doing good work, his solutions inevitably tilted toward taking the high road and exhibiting more trust in the goodness, fairness and intelligence of the electorate and audience than most candidates or TV executives would ever dare to embrace.
In that regard, the politics of “The West Wing” – which became more polarizing after the Sept. 11 terror attacks – were really secondary to its faith in ideas. Sure, the White House staff spent lots of time strategizing about what would be politically expedient, but the scales usually tipped toward what they deemed the right thing, which had a reassuring way of working out.
Moreover, as with the aforementioned Supreme Court episode, people who disagreed politically were frequently shown as both acting out of principle. Amid today’s partisan rancor, that mere notion sounds either quaint or hopelessly naïve, depending on which cable news network one prefers.
Discussing the stir surrounding Scalia’s death and Obama’s task of seeking to replace him – and alter the court’s balance of power during an election year – former adviser David Axelrod said on CNN, “Aaron Sorkin could not have written this script better.”
Actually, Axelrod’s wrong about that. Based on the gap separating “The West Wing” from the current state of U.S. politics, he really could – and the show generally did. And that’s why you don’t need to be a wild-eyed liberal to miss the Bartlet administration.