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February 24, 2011 / Siobhan Argent

The West Wing vs. the real world


Published by Farrago in 2011

When someone recommended I watch The West Wing, I fell quickly into the seductive web of plotlines. I shamelessly sacrificed my social life and all my spare time to watch Deputy Chief of Staff Joshua Lyman, his assistant Donna Moss, the morose Communications Director Toby Ziegler, his deputy Sam Seaborne and Press Secretary CJ Craig. With Nobel-laureate and philosopher President Jed Bartlet (Martin Sheen) at the helm of this enlightened US administration, I could wash away the memories of George Bush’s legacy in the 2010 Christmas break, while I gorged on Sauvignon Blanc and abandoned my exercise schedule.

While The West Wing first aired on NBC in 1999 and ended in 2006, I had the luxury of hindsight when watching the show. I had already experienced George Bush’s erroneous two terms as President of the United States, September 11, the ensuing Iraq War debacle, the Global Financial Crisis, and Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama’s ground-breaking runs for President.

In light of all this history, consider that The West Wing was influential enough during its broadcasting years to affect audience perception of the American presidency, spark debate on significant real-life political events, and even mirror future events with freakish accuracy. So how does The West Wing stack up against the real world?

Perception of the Presidency

How much power does fiction wield over reality? Or in this case, how far-reaching was The West Wing’s influence on people’s interest in politics? Fun fact: Good Morning America spent fifteen minutes talking about The West Wing the morning after the 2001 season finale, but these shows don’t even share the same television network[1].

It’s not really surprising; The West Wing’s US President Josiah Bartlet, a Nobel-laureate, philosopher and liberal pacifist, effectively exposed the American audience to an idealised president. This kind of interest in the drama had a likely effect on the way the show’s audience perceived the US Presidency around the time of the 2000 US elections. In The West Wing: The American Presidency as Television Drama, authors Peter C. Rollins and John E. O’Connor note:

‘Most prominent is the effect of the show on audience perceptions of what is “presidential”, [which has] immediate consequences for the two real candidates for president who [are]…trying to look like enough of whatever that might be to win the election.’[2]

Contrasted with Bush’s presidency, Bartlet might have seemed like a god-send to politically-savvy audience members. While Bush demonised Democrats in his campaign to wage a ‘war on terror’ in 2002, the fictional Bartlet remained at all times stoic and prudent, preferring the politics of economy over military force in foreign affairs. In more than one episode, Bartlet’s pacifism results in questionable results; so reticent is he to engage in hostile military activity that he effectively fires his Chief of Staff for advising against using peace-keeping troops when their activities would fail to achieve the desired agreements between Israel and Palestine (see ‘The Birnam Wood’, season 6). While Bartlet was portrayed as the model of a bipartisan, pacifist leader, Bush was dumped with the legacy of a presidency that The Economist later charged with ‘partisanship, politicisation and incompetence’[3]. Arguing that The West Wing was capable of affecting an election is, for obvious reasons, a loaded question. It’s also a double-edged sword: The West Wing may have been responsible for leading audiences towards an idealised president, but Bush became so hated that it’s not difficult to prefer one over the other. In free-source media, the line between The West Wing and reality has begun to blur; the ‘Obama West Wing’ mock montage compiled on You Tube has already collected 150,000 views as of January 2010, and rip-offs are spreading. The question remains: where should fiction end and reality begin, and how much ‘blurring’ of the two is permissable?

The West Wing, the Iraq War and the laws of entertainment:

During an interview about The West Wing with Terence Smith for ‘Online NewsHour’, writer Aaron Sorkin discussed the leverage The West Wing offers him, as a writer taking inspiration from real-life events:

‘I have a luxury that news outlets don’t. I can tell stories, and it’s more difficult for them to tell a story. With news, “It’s just the facts, ma’am.”[4]

Well, not quite. The West Wing is an idealised fantasy of what the Whitehouse could be. Richard Lawson from gawker.com argues that the show’s squeaky-clean, morally-upstanding characters ‘talked us into a belief that the dirty business of executive politics really isn’t that dirty after all.[5]’ And when you don’t have to deal with dirty politicians, the writers free themselves up to address the bigger issues with the kind of leverage commercial news networks can’t afford. As Rachel Gans-Boriskin and Russ Tissinger note in their paper The Bushlet Administration: Terrorism and War on The West Wing, they acknowledge that:

‘The moral questioning in The West Wing in which White House staff members debate among themselves about foreign policy and the ethical implications of a war on terrorism is quite remarkable…However,the substance and framing of these [issues] can have real effects on how the public view issues themselves’[6].

This ‘West Wing effect’ is epitomised in The West Wing’s treatment of topics sensitive to the Iraq War. In the show, the fictional state of Qumar acts as an Iraq/Afghanistan replacement, effectively avoiding the difficulty of directly addressing sensitive political scenarios. Phillip Cass in The Never-ending Story: Palestine, Israel and The West Wing argues that if a country is fictional, ‘its leaders can be safely assassinated and its people bombed or invaded as required’[7]. This is exactly how the Qumar and its people are used in the show. The Qumari Defence Minister, Abdul Sharif, acts as a stand-in for Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. As Boriskin and Tissinger point out, this tacitly connects Iraq and terrorism, an allegation that has since been disproved in real-world politics[8]. Add to this the stand-alone episode Isaac and Ishmael. A last-minute opener to the season following September 11, it was a dramatically-dead episode that provided an opportunity for The West Wing to try and explain the entire Middle Eastern political situation in under sixty minutes, with mixed reviews.

So what kind of message would these themes and episodes have sent to an American public in the months and years after September 11? It is perhaps too presumptive to assume that Americans who viewed these episodes automatically condemned Saddam Hussein as a harbourer of terrorists, however convenient the hypothesis might have been. And Sorkin himself offers both a defence and a convenient declaration of ignorance regarding the power of the media to influence its audience:

‘It’s important to remember that, first and foremost, if not only, this is entertainment. The West Wing isn’t meant to be good for you. We [presumably the producers of the show, NBC] are not telling anyone to eat their vegetables, and we do not consider [The West Wing] important in the [political] sense.[9]

Regardless of whether Aaron Sorkin has political motives, countries and characters are fictionalised for a reason; it’s easier to draw parallels rather than try and solve real, impossibly complex political situations. But as the Iraq/Afghanistan fictional plotline shows, fictionalising real situations runs the very real risk of presenting a factually questionable commentary on real events, and the actions of real people.

The Transition

The only exception, perhaps, is when shows predict rather than comment on real political events. In ‘Transition’, for example, presidential candidate Matthew Santos and Joshua Lyman, his political aide, discuss a phone call Santos makes to Chinese officials regarding US military involvement in an area sensitive to China:

Santos: ‘What I wanted to say was that in addition to this making no tactical military sense, it is a complete strategic blunder geopolitically. It is a potential reversion to a state of hostility with the second largest energy producer in the world…and the risk of serious damage to relations between the US and China, a relationship that for better or for worse is going to define the 21st century .

Lyman: We’re stuck with this.

Santos: It’s not just about opposing it philosophically. It isn’t working. It’s a high-stakes game of chicken designed to bring both parties to the table and it hasn’t done it.

Lyman: And you can deal with this on the day that you take office.

Santos: Which is what makes this an impossible situation. I’m going to be this country’s president in two months and everybody in the world knows it, and meanwhile I’m just supposed to sit back and shrug while this administration commits this country to a military situation it admits it has no exit strategy for.

Santos’ challenges have freakishly mirrored the real-life situation, only the episode was aired in April 2006, more than two and a half years before Obama was inaugurated.

The similarities are clear; Obama, for example, faced Bush’s ill-fated Iraq War, a major military commitment with an ambiguous long-term strategic outcome. He also faced the massive financial obligation of the war, and the stigma of being the president who must ‘clean up’ old policy before he can even begin to implement his own agenda. If The West Wing were still around, it’s tempting to speculate on what kind of plot arcs they’d be forming now, and whether life would instead begin to imitate art.

So…what now?

So, does watching The West Wing make you a political dead weight? Are you being told what to think about real events by the ‘fictional’ situations Barlet and his crew faces? Or are you, instead, an active political participant who watches shows like The West Wing to inform your knowledge about real-world politics?

It’s not hard, for example, to wish that the US could have swapped Bush for Bartlet in the real Oval Office. But Barlet never faced the level of complexity that reality forced upon a post-September 11 world; ultimately, he was always subject to his own moral compass, rarely compromised but always an ‘honest’ politician.

While The West Wing certainly suggests how the writers of the show might have preferred events after September 11 to play out, they were also able to fictionalise (and hence, alter) true events for the sake of the storyline. It makes comparison between fiction and reality a dangerous example of misinformation. It is ultimately up to the viewer to make up their own mind about The West Wing. In the end, the active viewer must be a critical participant, not a pawn, when bringing The West Wing into the real world.

Further reading:

Barack Obama stars in the West Wing:

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/3554976/Barack-Obama-stars-in-the-West-Wing.html

Sorry, but the Obama West Wing will never happen

http://gawker.com/5132233/sorry-but-the-obama-west-wing-will-never-happen 


[1] The West Wing: the American Presidency as Television Drama, Peter C. Rollins, John E. O’Connor, p. 76.

[2] The West Wing: the American Presidency as Television Drama, Peter C. Rollins, John E. O’Connor, pp. 76-7.

[3] The Economist ‘Few people will mourn the departure of the 43rd president’, http://www.economist.com/node/12931660,  accessed 13/1/11.

[4] Terence Smith, Interview with Aaron Sorkin for Online NewsHour, http://www.pbs.org/newshour/media/west_wing/sorkin.html, accessed 18/1/2011.

[5] Richard Lawson, ‘Sorry, but the Obama West Wing will never happen’, http://gawker.com/5132233/sorry-but-the-obama-west-wing-will-never-happen.

[6] The Bushlet Administration: Terrorism and War on The West Wing, p. 111

[7] p. 36 Phillip Cass, ‘The never-ending story: Palestine, Israel and The West Wing’, Journal of Arab and Muslim Media Research Volume 1, 2007.

[8] Rachel Gans-Boriskin and Russ Tissinger , ‘The Bushlet Administration: Terrorism and War on The West Wing’, Journal of American Culture, Volume 28, Number 1, March 2005, p. 111.

[9] Terence Smith, Interview with Aaron Sorkin for Online NewsHour, http://www.pbs.org/newshour/media/west_wing/sorkin.html, accessed 18/1/2011.

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