OldVenue, TV

Then and now: The West Wing, today

As we watch potential future Presidents become increasingly slanderous as the votes are counted, we can take refuge in a programme that remains as important in considering American politics as it did upon its debut.

From the moment that the pilot screened on NBC in 1999, The West Wing presented itself as a fast paced insight into the workings of fictional president Josiah Bartlet’s White House. Albeit an admittedly glamorised version of US politics, the show’s engaging, witty dialogue and ambitious characters won legions of viewers and critical acclaim. Despite the insistence of Leo McGarry, Bartlet’s Chief of Staff, that “there are two things in the world you never want to let people see how you make ‘em; laws and sausages”, Aaron Sorkin’s scripts captivated an audience living under the turbulent Bush administration.

The West Wing never shied away from being relevant to the political climate. Whilst airing, the show presented an alternative approach to topical issues, taking them away from the blundering clutches of George W. Bush and passing them into the capable hands of President Bartlet. Subjects like nuclear ambitions, oil, and the “War on Terror” were all discussed in the show’s storylines, and it’s those political philosophies that still resonate in the current landscape. We can find ourselves drawing upon them to judge the Republican candidates, particularly when they address an issue key to American cultural identity: the relationship of Church and State. President Bartlet’s Catholicism is a key part of his character; he understands his faith and its place within his presidency, keeping a distance between what he believes and the decisions he has to make. However, in the season two episode The Midterms, he humiliates a homophobic radio host on her use of the Bible, a type of intervention perhaps missing in the continued influence of Rush Limbaugh.

Further similarities persist in the social positions of the candidates. In the show, Governor Richie turns Bartlet’s education into a slur, disgracing him for being an “academic elitist.” Real-life candidate Rick Santorum made similar criticisms of Obama’s policies, calling him a “snob” for wanting college education for all Americans. Despite the apparent nonsensical tone of Santorum and others, they fulfil critical tropes seen again and again in US politics.

As the candidates reduce in number and the election draws closer, we should continue to think of The West Wing and the value of its satire and political positions, whilst hoping that none of the Republican candidates have the chance to follow in President Bartlet’s fictional footsteps.


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May 2022
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