Spoiler Alert – This article contains minor spoilers for those who haven’t watched the entire West Wing series.
On any given Wednesday night over the past few months, you could find a small group of students sitting breathlessly in one of Harvard’s recreational lounges, splayed out over couches and beanbag chairs, taking part in what had become half-habit and half-liturgy for us: West Wing Wednesdays. Aaron Sorkin’s drama followed the daily trials and tribulations of the President and his White House staff, and if you haven’t seen it, it’s an easy show to love: the characters are witty and endearing, the plot lines are complex and span multiple episodes, and the issues are so real that the parallels that frequently pop up between the West Wing’s alternate universe and our own are sometimes a bit uncanny.
And in a show about the Executive Branch, the main character certainly doesn’t disappoint. Josiah Bartlet, played masterfully by Martin Sheen, comes across as everything we could ask for in a commander in chief. His PhD and Nobel Prize in economics are balanced by the compassion and fatherliness that he shows to his staff and family. He is a spiritual man who struggles with the idea of a supremely vengeful God. A history lover, he is fluent in Latin and wont to quote ancient literature. While he briefly considered a career as a priest, Bartlet eventually traveled down the road of academia to become a successful professor at Dartmouth, teaching economics. After winning the Nobel Prize and the governorship of New Hampshire, Jed Bartlet beat out the Democratic frontrunner to become the party’s nominee, and eventually won the presidency.
Jed Bartlet’s time in office is nothing short of beautiful, a description that would be considered justifiably odd in almost any other political scenario. Over the course of seven seasons and 156 episodes, bi-partisan support from Congress allows Bartlet to address immigration reform, social security, alternative energy and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and those are only the non-fictional problems: President Bartlet exercises his role of commander in chief in dealing with the fictional states of “Qumar,” and “Equatorial Kundu” as well.
The character of Jed Bartlet was so strong and well done that it’s not hard to imagine the spillover it could have to real life. I’ve had plenty of friends mention that they switched their major from, say, English to political science, in large part due to watching Bartlet in the West Wing. But it seems that my generation is being primed to expect a president that would never exist in real life. After all, Sorkin often commented that Bartlet himself was written as a hybrid of many past presidents: he had the memory and smarts of Bill Clinton, the charisma of Ronald Reagan, the legislative might of Lyndon Johnson, and a working and personal relationship with his closest aides that recalls the Jack Kennedy method of bringing family and friends into the White House.
We should remember that each of Sorkin’s role models had faults that are ominously absent from Bartlet: Ronald Reagan was deferential to the advice of his aides, and the disorderly nature of his administration left it vulnerable to bad decisions and scandal, as with the Iran Contra affair. Johnson was alternately Machiavellian and tactless (he called Robert Kennedy hours after Jack’s death to get the proper wording of the oath of office). Of course, Clinton and Kennedy’s sexual appetites threatened their personal and professional lives at various points throughout their presidencies.
In leaving almost any imperfection away from Bartlet’s character, except for plot thickeners such as a kept-secret case of multiple sclerosis, Sorkin creates the precedent of presidential perfection. Whether or not Bartlet is real isn’t really as important a question as whether or not we as a voting public expect our candidates, imperfect humans as they are, to be like Bartlet. And amidst calls that the modern presidency may be too much for one person alone, President Bartlet is beginning to rise up in the background of our modern politics as an unreachable ideal, taunting us with the best of all worlds.
It may be time for us to accept that, inasmuch as President Bartlet is an amalgamation of all of the traits we found most attractive in past presidents, no corporeal executive can embody everything we would want in a leader. Just as President Bush never had the eloquence of JFK or the wit of Ronald Reagan, President Obama may not come across with all the fire of a modern day Theodore Roosevelt, and future presidents will have faults all their own.
During the 2008 election, per Maureen Dowd’s request, Aaron Sorkin wrote up a meeting between one presidential hopeful – then-Senator Barack Obama – and “a Democratic ex-president who could offer more fatherly wisdom” – Josiah Bartlet. The short piece is masterfully witty in a way that only Sorkin can pull off, but there’s something slightly amiss about the encounter. Obama seems too stiff and dweebish in the face of Bartlet’s bullying personality, and the fictional political star quickly dominates the actual one. Here’s when we as an audience realize the ultimate downfall of Jed Bartlet: he is but the creation of one man. In writing the encounter between the two men, we realize not that they are two political figures talking frankly about the times, but that both voices are simply delusions in the mind of a lone screenwriter; Aaron Sorkin talking to himself.
It’s here that we realize that our real-life presidents, imperfections and all, carry much more than the creative weight of a fictional character. For all of their successes – inspiring a new generation to pursue public service; creating the modern role model for political progressives – Sorkin and Bartlet never achieved that ever-elusive aspect of real life: failure. Due solely to the finite nature of television dramas, President Bartlet had to be perfect. The end of the West Wing as a television series spelled the death of Josiah Bartlet, but he achieved his life’s work – creating the legislative utopia that all Liberals dream could exist.
It certainly wasn’t Sorkin’s place to remind us of the imperfections inherent in our everyday politicians. Indeed, amongst the tribulations of people like Eliot Spitzer, Charlie Rangle, and John Edwards, we don’t need much reminding. But it is worth pointing out to those inspired by the West Wing to pursue careers in politics that real-life Washington D.C. is currently split between two sides so divided by hatred that it recalls the 1860s. And if we expect our obstacles, scandals, challengers, and arguments to melt away in the face of honest political conviction like a neatly packaged episode of Bartlet’s administration, we have another thing coming.
Success in real-world Washington is defined differently, it must be. Real success in our time is marked by decades of failure, backroom dealing, and political brinksmanship, followed by small victories and contested laws. The healthcare bill. Dodd-Frank. The auto-bailout. Success is too right for the left and too left for the right. It gives too much to the powerful and not enough to the weak. It would hardly be called success unless it was preceded by so much failure.
But it is still success. These pieces of legislation moved forward the policies of a nation that previously left its citizens to die broke, sick, hungry, and desperate. They budged the unwilling American political behemoth forward on the scale of humanity. They took small steps. We always take small steps. They never seem to fit into hour-long segments.
These laws would hardly be classified as “Sorkonian” victories. I have doubts that hypothetical West Wing story lines would include legislation like Obamacare or Dodd-Frank at all, and if they did, if President Bartlet would even sign them into law. These bills would be mediocre compromises at best, and political and moral failures at worst. They would have been perceived as let downs – concessions to “the other guys.” In many ways, that’s how they really are considered today. We shouldn’t hold the successes of our reality to the standards of fiction.
When Jack Kennedy released his book Profiles in Courage, he chose the outcasts of the Senate as his subjects. Aside from John Quincy Adams and Daniel Webster, two Americans whose reputations have since been redeemed, the entire work focuses on brushing the debris off of those who had been swept up into the dustbin of history. Kennedy found truly compelling stories in the senators that had stood not only against the opposition, but also against their own constituents and supporters. He shined a spotlight on the historical figures that had lost everything in a trade for their own principles. George Norris opposed the arming of merchant ships during World War One. Edmund G. Ross was the swing vote for acquittal in Andrew Johnson’s impeachment, against the vast majority of his own party. Robert A. Taft condemned the Nuremberg Trials of Nazi war criminals on a legal technicality, facing off against a bipartisan opposition from Congress and a war-torn nation; until then he had been the presumptive Republican nominee for president.
These men had no place in Sorkin’s script. They did not act according to the will of a viewing audience, and they did not bend to the popularly held views of success. They acted according to their own morality. None of them waited anxiously for the recognition of a sick senator from Massachusetts. Indeed, there are many more courageous in our history than Kennedy had time to profile. They did not seek our tepid nods of approval. Rather, they sought to guide the country in the right direction, towards progress and away from the corrosive influence of conformity.
Often, when our weekly watch parties would end, I found myself feeling somewhat disappointed. It took a while for me to realize why: the credits and theme music reminded us that Sorkin’s masterwork was a piece of fiction, not an in-depth news report. In some ways, I hated Sorkin for creating such a role model in the realm of a television drama. Couldn’t he have been a historian and shed light on those who deserved our admiration? Yet, at the same time, I recognized what Sorkin was truly doing for his audience. He set a high bar for progressive administrations to follow. He created a leader that inspired a generation.
We cannot forget, though, that real perfection sometimes means rejecting the allure of approval and the tokens of adoration that our society so readily throws upon those that do what is expected. True success depends upon having the courage to be unpopular, something Sorkin never dared to do.