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A Wistful Look at the West Wing

Ilana Masad
October 5, 2015

Bartlet for President!

by Ilana Masad

r1_c2_castimageAARON SORKIN, creator of The West Wing, predicted a lot of what has happened in the U.S. over the last ten to fifteen years. He left the show in 2003, and in its first season after his departure, the whole thing floundered terribly, but by season six, the writers got back into shape and began to identify trends in American politics with incredible and, frankly, creepy accuracy. From the BP oil spill to the first non-white president, to relations with Iraq, Iran, China, and Saudi Arabia, all the way to internal political scandals, The West Wing was prescient — and amazing, idealistic, optimistic, and all around bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. I can’t help but love it, still, because it gives me hope for a better, unembarrassing America.

gop-debate-1024It’s impossible to cover seven seasons in a single essay, but the element that has been most important to me about the show has been its presidents. Both Bartlet (Martin Sheen) and Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits) are men, yes, cismen at that [men assigned as male at birth], but in a time when many want Hillary Clinton to become president simply because she’s a woman, I think it’s important to remember that tokenizing politicians by celebrating their blackness, womanness, unprecedented religion, Latin Americannes, queerness, or transness can be extremely dangerous. Hence, my fascination with The West Wing, which, while employing far too few minorities, still managed to look skillfully and sincerely at issues from perspectives that, especially at the time the show was being made (1999-2006), were incredibly progressive.

THE WEST WING’S FIRST SEASON starts with Josiah Bartlet crashing into a tree on his bicycle. The rest of the characters are introduced, as all of them get paged the information that something is wrong with POTUS. This is politics 101, since viewers like me (Israeli, confused by American health insurance, maddened by how complicated the various arms of government work) wouldn’t necessarily know that POTUS stands for President of the United States. Bartlet himself only arrives at the very end of the pilot — a brilliant decision, because it establishes how impressive a character he is, able to be utterly undignified (he’s walking with a cane and obviously embarrassed about the big deal that was made over his little bike accident) while also commanding attention and awe from all of these intelligent characters we’ve met.

Martin Sheen is not a big man; he’s short and grey-haired, often red-faced and chubby, and yet he never stops being a force to be reckoned with, even when lying in bed in his adorable old-timey striped PJs.

Over the seasons’ arc, Bartlet is revealed to have Multiple Sclerosis, which he has to reveal to the nation. He is almost impeached for holding back this information, and he sure as hell pisses a lot of people off for hiding it when he was first elected. Meanwhile, the Vice President is revealed to have had an affair (*cough* obvious Clinton allusion *cough*); the deputy chief of staff and his assistant are in love for years before finally fucking (and then dating, etc., but it was the sexual tension that was killing me there); the President’s daughter dates, breaks up with, and then dates again the President’s personal assistant, a young African-American man named Charlie, who has an incredible sense of humor and is closer to the President than anyone other than his wife and children — closer than POTUS’s daughters, actually, all three of whom resent the spotlight their dad has put on them. These are just details and finer plot points that exemplify how the show is basically a soap opera happening in the West Wing of the White House.

Bartlet is the character who is the most mysterious, complex, and brainy, a certifiable genius, who loves to talk to his staffers for hours about irrelevant (to politics) topics like women’s softball, obscure dead politicians, and passages from the Bible. He is a Catholic president (no big deal thanks to John F. Kennedy) and he doesn’t screw around; he and his wife have an incredible marriage of both mind and body. Some of the best moments of the show are when they are clearly getting ready to have sex: Bartlet says something sexist and his wife, Dr. Abigail Bartlet (played by Stockard Channing, the same actress who played Rizzo in Grease!), puts him in his place. She is another shining star in the show, always trying to work — as a doctor, as a woman, as a feminist — on so-called “women’s issues,” which, of course, are simply human rights issues.

AMONG PRESIDENT BARLET’S more amazing achievements are: a tenuous but stable peace between Israel and Palestine; appointing a Latino Supreme Court Justice and the first female Chief Justice; running the White House with a female Chief of Staff; creating millions of new jobs; reforming Social Security; accepting a large group of Chinese Christian asylum seekers; using “boots on the ground” strategies that actually work in an invented African nation (Equatorial Kundu) and an invented gulf state (Qumar).

To live in a world with a man like Bartlet in it as a world leader would be to live in a better world, plain and simple. Bartlet doesn’t believe it is the government’s right to ban abortion or decrease funding for it, even if he doesn’t like the idea of abortions. He doesn’t believe that his or anyone’s faith should be forced onto others. He makes hard choices and knows when he’s sending his own people into danger. He is far more concerned with principles, conscience, and results than with opinion polls and corporate lobbyists. He is, in short, a president who cannot and will never exist.

IN THE SIXTH SEASON, as Bartlet’s last two years began, the show predicted just how early presidential election seasons would unofficially begin as we were introduced to two men, a moderate, pro-choice Republican, Arnold Vinick (Alan Alda), and an almost perfect Democrat, Matt Santos, over whom I swooned for the entirety of those two last seasons. Vinick is old, white, and kind of looks like a sweet, smart turtle (I like turtles; this isn’t an insult). Santos is tall, strapping, married to a white woman, and the father of two young children.

Santos is the proto-Obama. My brother has a theory that the writers of the show had already heard of Obama in 2004/2005 and that they consulted with David Axelrod regarding how a campaign like Obama’s would work. Whether or not the writers saw the way the winds of change were getting ready to blow, they created a real and human Latino candidate who was young, fiercely intelligent, protective of his family’s privacy, and good-looking to boot. His focus during his campaign is education. Of course, Santos gets elected in the end — not only that, he brings his rival into his inner circle and makes him Secretary of State, because he needs someone with more knowledge of foreign policy than he himself has.

Incredibly, Santos knows his weaknesses. He knows where he’s knowledgeable and where he’s not. Additionally — and this was perhaps one of the most sensitive plotlines the show ever handled — during his campaign he doesn’t want to just be the miracle Latino kid on the Democratic ticket. He doesn’t want to use or abuse the Latino constituency. He doesn’t want to be a token. He wants to be a person, not a race or ethnicity or language.

This is not to say that he doesn’t care about his roots; quite the contrary. But he doesn’t want to exploit them in order to get votes. He doesn’t want to talk about immigration policy for fear of either alienating or encouraging Latino citizens who’d want to bring their families safely and legally across borders. He ends up pandering anyway, because his advisors force his hand and because, at the end of the day, he is a politician and he wants to win. But his reluctance to do so is deeply humanizing.

WHILE THERE ARE PLENTY of faults to be found with The West Wing, as there are with any show, something it managed to avoid incredibly well throughout was tokenism. Yes, there was a black Attorney General, but he wasn’t treated differently than anyone else. Yes, there was a woman who attained the position of Chief of Staff, but she earned it and deserved it and every one of the men in the show believed that she was the right choice — and when they balked at taking orders from her she called them out on it. Yes, there was a Latino candidate who became president, but he did so on the merits of his campaign promises and platform, not because of the color of his skin or the name he was born with.

In the days of #WeNeedDiverseBooks, we also need diverse politicians, and there are still far too few minorities or women in positions of power. Still, The West Wing shows us that it’s possible, and it’s the show I turn to every time real politicians disappoint me to the point of tears. We all need our magic balms, and this, The West Wing, is mine.

Ilana Masad, a fiction writer, is a columnist for McSweeney’s and has contributed to The Rumpus, The Toast, and the Chicago Tribune literary supplement. Masad is an Israeli-American who spent most of her childhood in Israel, with twice-a-year visits to the U.S., and now lives in New York.