What I learned from The West Wing (Thing)
Things The West Wing — and its inquisitorial companion podcast — might teach us
There’s a good podcast called The West Wing Thing that just finished up its run. Each week, writer Josh Olson (A History of Violence)¹ and comedian Dave Anthony (The Dollop) watch one episode of The West Wing and then draw and quarter its politics.
I was nineteen when The West Wing debuted. Watching its initial run on TV, I saw political staffers played by Allison Janney, Richard Schiff, etc, negotiate a fantasised re-do of the Clinton and W Bush presidencies.
I cringed at those staffers standing up one by one and pledging allegiance to the president and, seven years later, watched a final season’s worth of soulful Jimmy Smits battling soulful Alan Alda to be the next president-to-whom-people-pledge-allegiance-to-the-president.
Creator Aaron Sorkin didn’t stick around for all of it, but somehow I did. I’m one of the (few?) people who has watched all of The West Wing, listened to all of the “semi-official” accompanying podcast (The West Wing Weekly, hosted by Hrishi Hirway and series regular Joshua Malina) and to all of Olson and Anthony’s The West Wing Thing as well.
The West Wing Weekly loves The West Wing. When storylines make no sense, when the show is awkward and dismissive of women, the hosts might gently consider it “of its time”, but they regularly interview cast, crew, famous admirers and Sorkin himself, so generally it’s softball questions² and luxuriating in the show’s dream world (Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda donates a personalised West Wing rap).
On The West Wing Thing, the hosts took as their initial basis the idea that The West Wing is a well-written show which had an outsized, horribly negative effect on Democratic politics, because future Obama-ites inhaled it and allowed it to actually influence their governing.
Then, shortly into the run of their podcast, Olson and Anthony also decided The West Wing isn’t a well-written show after all (Anthony, in every episode: “It’s CRAZY”. Olson, in every episode: “BONKERS”).
The West Wing has been sold, then and since, as a balm for shocked, frightened liberals/centrists reeling from the Stolen Election, the Stupid President, the towers crumbling and years of pointless war.
In those years, I tuned out of Australian politics (after the gut-punch of the Children Overboard election, it was easy) and fumed about “Dubya” instead.
Australia’s relationship with America is similar in some ways to the UK’s; we’re perennially “little brother” to a big, powerful man-mountain, and we whisper bitchy comments about how stupid and ugly he is behind his back.³
So I was never fully on board with The West Wing. I’m not sure an Australian can be, unless they’re hootingly ignorant of reality.
What Australians are conditioned for, however, is ignoring the processed American cheese food in the media we consume. We can watch Marvel movies unironically, even though they’re largely about rich libertarian sociopaths in costumes.
This helps explain how I could, from 1999–2006, mostly ignore The West Wing’s stratospheric “background radiation levels” of American exceptionalism.⁴
What we might take from The West Wing (Thing)
On a few occasions I’ve gotten a whiff of a high-end design consultancy’s rarefied air. It’s full of pretty young people walking with great purpose. They appear confident. They know they’re here to Make Things Better. They wear lanyards. I’ve always called it “the West Wing smell”.
So I think it’s appropriate to look back at what the West Wing TV show taught the “President Obama” and “President Hillary” generations of the Democratic party — because many modern professionals learned those same lessons.
If we’re careful, we can avoid internalising them and letting them doom us to repeat the same mistakes forever, just like centrist Democrats.
Failure is glamorous
If you watch The West Wing, you will hear opinions coming from characters’ mouths which have been crafted by veterans of recent Democratic politics, paid handsomely to come to Hollywood and join a TV writers’ room. As a result, The West Wing does a lot to excuse Democrats for being ineffectual, and to dress up the characters’ meagre achievements as heroic.
The script, score and cinematography all tell us these are the best of people, failing repeatedly on the path to a greater America, but the characters are rarely seen to have much of a cause, beyond staying on the good side of the media, remaining in power and “raising the level of public debate”.
If your “cause” is looking good, staying employed and sounding like you know what you’re talking about, you’ll find a way to see your failure as glamorous, rather than as something to be learned from.
“Smart” is everything
I rarely get a sense of the characters on The West Wing as public servants (i.e., serving the public). Mostly they act as though they are governing for dumb hogs.
The primary sin one can commit in The West Wing is being stupid. The speed at which the characters talk is meant to tell you they have big brains. Bartlet, C.J., Josh and the others are capable of remembering and reciting huge amounts of data, long stories, etc, which, in The West Wing, makes them heroes, and which, in reality, puts them on an intellectual level with your class captain in fourth grade⁵.
As someone who was good at reading and writing English from a young age, I spent my youth thinking I was smart for picking up other people’s spelling or grammar mistakes, when, actually, they weren’t fucking important and were never an indicator of anything but my own pedantry.
Dubya isn’t so “stupid”. And speech gaffes never had any relevance to the quality of his leadership. Al Gore was considered “smart”, but that alone wouldn’t have made him a better president.
Lived experience is immaterial
When it bothers to show them, The West Wing treats anyone outside the political sphere as a rube or a wacko. Occasional trips outside Washington D.C. usually sees the characters meeting corn-fed mid-western stereotypes.
Whenever scientists or other technical professionals visit the characters at the White House, they’re to be laughed at, presenting as just on the safe side of The Nutty Professor.
And, of course, there’s “Big Block of Cheese Day”, where the West Wing characters invite “ordinary people” to lobby them and they laugh about it.
The one time a character takes a moment to listen to an ordinary person (at a bar, inpromptu, unwillingly), it transforms their minds and results in an off-the-top-of-their-heads new policy designed to make it “just a little easier” for reasonably well-off businessmen.
(That policy is eventually dumped and no change is made.)
Working too hard is glorious
Good people work until they drop, and that is the right thing to do. Because life is supposed to be hard and everybody needs to harden up. If you ever deserve a holiday, it’s only because you are so great at your job that we need you back in a week, fresh and at your best for the heroic fight ahead.
Also, you’ve been yelling at and threatening your staff, but that is your usual modus operandi and we’re kind of OK with it except on the level of “it’s poor form to hit the servants, marm”.
Institutions are more important than people
Respect for the institution is at the heart of The West Wing. They must be preserved at all costs. The most important of these institutions might be “bipartisanship”. Everything that happens in The West Wing is drowned in the thick, yellow biscuit gravy of the two-party system, a system America’s founding fathers knew was terribly flawed at best.
The characters constantly shy away from doing, trying, even talking about actual reform because “the other side” might find out about it. At the same time, they tell the viewer that America is meant to be this way and this is the best of all systems.
In Olson and Anthony’s view, The West Wing helped entrench this behaviour in real life Democrats by painting a version of politics in which conservatives are friendly, noble, and can be “worked with” (to keep things centrist). That has worked out great.
Like most other institutions in America, the two-party system is not actually very old, is quite damaging and could absolutely be changed if the people who benefit from it weren’t doing their best to obscure other ways of running things.
We can’t ignore institutions (or institutional thinking). But institutions are only institutions because certain humans say they are, and taking note of who those humans are and how they benefit from the status quo is fairly important if you want to get anything done.
Writers are really very, very powerful, seriously
The ultimate idea behind all of Sorkin’s work appears to be “One good speech will save the world”. Perhaps that idea resonated with so many powerful people (politicians, media, Hollywood) that it self-fulfilled. Sorkin’s words and ideas have, in fact, changed the world, because they happened to suit the goals of the wealthy.
So I guess he’s right about that one?
Go listen to The West Wing Thing! Just as a long-running TV series can go “deeper” than a movie , The West Wing Thing perhaps had to run as long as it did in order to properly sponge out my skull and neutralise any remaining chunks of West Wing clinging to the edges of the braincase.
That won’t make Olson or Anthony feel any better about having sat through every episode of the show, but since their next project together is apparently a podcast in which they endure even more painful viewing than The West Wing, we probably needn’t feel too sorry for them.
¹ I knew Olson from his Village Voice essay I Will Not Read Your Fucking Script.
² I recall a single guest (a high level crew member) willing to be fairly candid about his difficult relationship with Sorkin. Cast member Schiff also discusses frustration with the show. Outside of that, it’s big smiles.
³ I maintain the most characteristic feature of Australians isn’t how “friendly” we are, or how much beer we drink, but our general gutlessness in the face of authority:
⁴ As a late teen, I also had an American-style non-politics shaped largely by white, middle-aged comedians.
⁵ And, as The West Wing Thing points out, their stories are usually factually inaccurate anyway.