What I learned rewatching The West Wing in the Biden era
Aaron Sorkin's political drama is a telling relic of a bygone age
Aging is strange. I think of it like walking down a curved corridor that's mostly dark up ahead but brightly illuminated behind. For years, it's possible to look back and review where you've been, feeling like those past experiences are a part of the present world. But then at a certain point, some of those events and perceptions slip past the curve line and disappear from view. They are now history in a more decisive respect.
I'm a political junky, so it should surprise no one that I've watched The West Wing three times since its seven-season run concluded in 2006. (I didn't watch it in real time.) The first was during the closing years of the George W. Bush administration. The second was sometime in the middle of Barack Obama's two terms. And I started watching again right around the time Joe Biden was inaugurated.
The first two times, I agreed with much of what the show's boosters and critics said about it. It was gripping political catnip. It presented a highly idealized and often overly sentimental vision of American politics. The acting was uniformly excellent, with the cast portraying a mix of sharply drawn, idiosyncratic characters who managed to be both admirable and flawed in just the right proportions to create dramatic tension and draw viewers into the world unfolding before us across 154 episodes. The writing swung from thrillingly smart to cringingly earnest, sometimes from scene to scene within the same episodes (with both the highs and the lows evening out after creator and lead writer Aaron Sorkin departed the show at the end of its fourth season). At its best, it was as great as commercial television has ever been. At its worst, it made you want to hurl your remote at the screen.
Most of that is true the third time through, but something else has changed or shifted in the eight or nine years since my last viewing. And I don't think it's me. Or rather, it's not just me. It's me along with everyone else.
The West Wing is what you get if you take the outlook of the most committed Democrats during the two terms of Bill Clinton's presidency, add an overlay of rhetorical grandiosity derived from John F. Kennedy's speeches, and toss in a dash of Jimmy Carter's Christian piety, with Carter's Southern Baptist evangelicalism swapped out for the flinty New England Catholicism of the fictional President Josiah "Jed" Bartlet (played by Martin Sheen).
When the show originally aired, this was a liberal fantasy, but it was one grounded in the real world. It was a sanctified vision of how the resolutely center-left Democrats who took over the party in 1992 understood themselves. During my first and second viewings of the show, in roughly 2007 and 2012, the fantasia on progressive themes still felt rooted in reality. Clinton stalwarts like James Carville and Paul Begala would have fit in quite nicely in the Bartlet White House. Same with top Obama advisers Ben Rhodes and David Plouffe.
But now, with Joe Biden in the White House, turning the page on Reaganism by proposing trillions of dollars in spending every couple of weeks? Not anymore.
In the world of The West Wing, policy idealism and ambition are consistently expressed on just two issues: free trade and gun control. The fictional president is a Nobel laureate in economics who treats free trade as both unambiguously good and inexorable, like a rising tide that lifts all boats, at least in the long run. His job is to facilitate the inevitable and propose small-ball programs to tidy up the mess it makes around the margins of American life while dressing those policies in regal rhetoric. The show's most interesting character, the gruff and self-destructive communications director Toby Ziegler (played brilliantly by Richard Schiff), is never more impassioned than when explaining to a delusional leftist that free trade is the only game in town.
But that's nothing compared to how strongly the show disparages guns. The Bartlet White House is the kind of place where the president will burn up the good part of an afternoon systematically taking apart the pro-gun arguments of his more centrist vice president and end the conversation by suggesting that the only reasonable position on the issue is to favor repealing the hopelessly anachronistic 2nd Amendment. No wonder press secretary Claudia Jean (C.J.) Cregg (the fabulous Allison Janney) has a habit of inserting asides in her daily briefings to remind the White House press corps and the American people at large precisely how many kids have been killed by guns over the past hour or day.
What's odd about these commitments, in light of our present world, is not so much that the show hits them so hard as that nothing else that comes up is treated as non-negotiable. On every other issue, Clintonism reigns. Fear of deficits — and public opinion — limits every spending proposal. The boundaries of the possible are set by Republicans, who are often quite willing to cut a deal, but only if it gets them a tax cut or shrinks the size of government. Remember Bill Clinton's post-1994 State of the Union speeches that went on forever as the president rattled off dozens of initiatives so modest even many Republicans would politely applaud them? The West Wing gives us a world in which that's all a Democratic president can ever do — and it treats this not as a necessary compromise with a temporary political reality but as something as unchangeable as the law of gravity and somehow also the highest calling of democratic politics as such.
But if the show's policy stances now feel like they emanate from a bygone political era, its treatment of women comes off today like a dispatch from an entirely different, and thoroughly archaic, sociocultural epoch.
This is a show that in nearly episode of its first six seasons matter-of-factly dramatizes the White House Deputy Chief of Staff (Josh Lyman played by Bradley Whitford) harassing, belittling, mocking, emotionally abusing, and fragrantly condescending to his assistant Donna Moss (Janel Moloney). And that's far from all. Hardly an episode goes by in the show's first four Sorkin-dominated seasons without two or more of the male characters making gratuitous comments about the importance of "speaking as men" or "acting as men." (One half expects them to punctuate these lines by butting heads and grunting.) And the most devastating put-down anyone in the Bartlet White House can utter is that someone has "sounded like a girl."
Now, some caveats are in order. I'm a sharp critic of cancel culture. I don't think Sorkin should be cancelled or the show banished from television. The relationship between Josh and Donna is more complicated than my description when it is viewed in light of the totality of their characters and the overall arc of the show's seven seasons. The portrayal of the president's marriage to Abbey Bartlet (Stockard Channing), an accomplished physician whose career takes a beating during her years in the White House, is complex and quite well done, with the first lady often putting her husband in his place during their frequent, heated arguments by calling him a "jackass." (We're usually inclined to agree.) And after Sorkin's departure, the character of C.J. really came alive, especially once she was promoted from press secretary to White House chief of staff in season six.
Still, all that being said, the show's presumptions about gender roles and its treatment of relations between the sexes in the workplace is often stupefyingly inapt for 2021. More than anything else, this is what dates the show — and is likely to date it far more with each passing year. It won't be long before, in this respect at least, The West Wing will be seen to have more in common with The Honeymooners than it does with the world most of us inhabit in our work lives and families.
But that doesn't make the show a relic in every respect, or even in the most decisive respects.
When norms, assumptions, and attitudes move from the extended present into the historical past just beyond the curve line, we begin to learn from them in a new way. We come to see firsthand the way the boundaries of the possible change over time — for both the better and the worse.
It's good that Democrats have greater ambitions today than they did in the real-world and fictional neoliberal eras. It's not so good that our own politics is far more polarized and turbulent than it was then, with partisans on both sides unable to forge the compromise and consensus that was formerly within reach, at least sometimes. It's good that women no longer tolerate, and that fewer men attempt, acts of egregious disrespect in the workplace. It's not so good that fury at the injustices that remain now fuels rampant censoriousness throughout our culture.
And then there is the unabashed high-mindedness that suffused The West Wing from top to bottom. That was always a bit hokey and pedantic, because one of Sorkin's weaknesses as a writer is laying it on a little thick. But it was also, on the whole, civically salubrious — at its best, a compellingly dramatized reminder of the nobility of public service and patriotism. To the extent that this aspect of the show clashes with the full-spectrum cynicism of politics in our own era, it serves to remind us of a better way.
A wise man once said that the concepts of progress and decline are too simplistic. Things are always getting at once better and worse in different respects. As long as lovers of politics continue to watch The West Wing, it will serve as a salutary reminder of that enduring human truth.