There’s a sticker on my laptop lid that speaks to my liberal fantasy about a Washington that is more progressive, more intelligent and more fair than real life — it reads “Bartlet/Hoynes ‘98,” a tribute to the fictional administration spotlighted on Aaron Sorkin’s beloved television show The West Wing.
If you haven’t seen it, The West Wing is easy to love. The theme music alone is enough to make anyone with a patriotic bone in their body shed a single tear. President Jed Bartlet’s White House staffers are lovable, hard-charging do-gooders, and the matters it explores are so real that the analogies between Bartlet’s parallel universe and ours are often a bit uncanny. But it reminds us of a time (did it ever really exist?) when people in political office took their jobs very seriously and wanted to actually govern this country rather than settle scores and appeal to their respective bases. Its uplifting ethos feels eons away from the “stable genius” president and his “well-oiled machine” of an administration, but it conveys an optimism about the power of politics to work for the common good that my devastated post-election self can’t resist.
Introduced in September 1999, The West Wing presented the sort of idealistic Democratic government that many wish we had when it was airing in the depths of the Bush administration. It prophesied many of the changes that would come with the election of Barack Obama, the man who came the closest to Sorkinian perfection. For example, Barlet appointed the first Latino justice to the Supreme Court in 1999, something Obama did nine years later when he appointed Sonia Sotomayor. The first season also included a storyline about the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” in 1999, another landmark accomplishment of the Obama administration 11 years later. And, of course, there was the election of Matthew Santos, the country’s first president of color, in the last season. In between, The West Wing reflected political flashpoints such as North Korean and Iranian nuclear ambitions, peacemaking between Palestine and Israel, conflict in the People’s Republic of China over the status of Taiwan and invoking the 25th Amendment for an Acting President. Whether dealing with endearingly low-impact problems such as the surprisingly combative “Cartographers for Social Equality” interest group or existential imperatives such as securing the votes for the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, the attitudes of Bartlet and his White House could always be summed up by one of the series’ most-repeated phrases: “What’s next?”
But the reason why people like me continue to love The West Wing is that it’s just as much about the world we live in now as it was about the world then. As our political system continues to degrade — with a catastrophic president and intransigent Congress — the albeit fictional Bartlet and his staffers offer some small comfort. The most popular political dramas of our day, like House of Cards, are ones where back-alley plotting and murderous presidents take center stage rather than the ideals of governing, but Bartlet is just an imperfect man who happens to be the platonic ideal of a liberal leader. He has the memory and smarts of Bill Clinton, the legislative might of Lyndon Johnson and the working and personal charm of Jack Kennedy. But the best television shows inspire complex emotion, and the melancholy of The West Wing is that political heroes like Bartlet can’t exist in real life. Insofar as Bartlet is an amalgamation of all the traits we found attractive in past presidents, no politician can embody everything we want in a leader. The powerfully-magnetic urge to watch “just one more” episode of The West Wing speaks to the fact that in some ways, I resent Sorkin for creating such a character as Bartlet. He is an unreachable ideal, taunting us with the best of all worlds.
I wish fiction wasn’t the only place where I could find leadership with logic right now. But fiction can also ease the pain of an untenable political situation and make waiting for our Bartlet just a little bit easier. If you’re having trouble finding honesty, competence and morality in the White House, know that those things aren’t gone forever — they’re just on Netflix.