One of the things about getting old is discovering areas where your opinion stays relatively constant while the rest of the world shifts dramatically in one direction or the other.
Take my position on economic sanctions. Back when I was first researching the phenomenon, the overwhelming consensus inside the Beltway was that sanctions never worked and were purely an exercise in symbolism. My take back then was that this was not entirely fair, that under certain conditions sanctions could be a useful tool of statecraft, but unfortunately sanctioning states wanted to use them far more frequently than they should. Now, everyone inside the Beltway loves sanctions! And my current take is ... under certain conditions sanctions can be a useful tool of statecraft, but unfortunately sanctioning states want to use them far more frequently than they should.
This does not just apply to policy, it also applies to pop culture. Which brings me to the 20th (??!!) anniversary of the start of “The West Wing” and the current re-evaluations of the show: that creator Aaron Sorkin wrote great banter but the Big Speech Theory of Politics is bad and the show was nowhere near as good as, say, “The Sopranos.”
Democrats have loved “The West Wing,” with its unabashed liberal tilt, since it premiered. After George W. Bush’s election — and see if this sounds familiar — it was a refuge for Democrats yearning for a president who could articulate policy in an eloquent manner. My take at the time was that creator Aaron Sorkin wrote great banter but the Big Speech Theory of Politics is bad and the show was nowhere near as good as, say, “The Sopranos.”
As time has passed, however, two trends have caused left-leaning critics to rip into the show almost as much as they rip into “Friends.” The first is that Sorkin’s subsequent television shows have declined in quality. “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” was mercy-killed after a single season. HBO’s “The Newsroom” suffered a worse fate, staggering through three seasons of God-awful speechifying and unrelenting self-righteousness. When you write dreck like that, it leaves you vulnerable to biting satire. It is understandable that critics are reappraising Sorkin’s whole oeuvre.
The second trend is that the Democratic Party has shifted leftward, so a lot of what was talked about on “The West Wing” seems too neoliberal and too Capraeque for 2019. Vox’s Emily Todd VanDerWerff wrote about the show this week, and her essay perfectly encapsulates the view that the show is not only bad but it has hampered the Democratic Party:
“The West Wing has come under fire from one-time or would-be fans, who see in its vision of politics something that has come to hamstring the Democratic Party by forever tying it to stentorian speechifying and Clintonian third-way politics. The Bartlet administration, after all, represents a very ’90s view of the left-wing coalition. …
“The West Wing has come to so thoroughly define the way that many in the center-left have come to think about Washington that it’s had a deleterious effect on their beliefs about how Washington should work. On the one hand, The West Wing holds up as ideal comfort food television. But on the other, its politics are profoundly limited. …
“The most significant shift in Democratic politics since The West Wing left the air is tactical. Younger left-leaning voters increasingly don’t believe the Republican Party, as currently constituted, is capable of compromise — and not without reason. There is a growing desire among some Democratic voters to see their party play hardball, to impeach Trump, to maybe even pack the Supreme Court in an effort counterbalance what many of these voters see as the theft of a seat that might otherwise have belonged to Merrick Garland.
“Such a shift in tactics would be anathema to Jed Bartlet’s staffers, who never met a problem they couldn’t solve with a beautiful, soaring bit of rhetoric that convinced everybody their center-left proposals were the correct way forward. But, as many on the party’s leftmost flank would now argue, the failure of Barack Obama’s administration to win over Republican legislators, despite having one of the most gifted orators in generations behind the bully pulpit, would seem to unseat The West Wing’s ideals, to firmly prove you can’t solve all society’s ills with the right speech and a little politesse.”
VanDerWerff’s summary of how the left thinks of “The West Wing” in 2019 is accurate, and it leaves me with an important question: Did any of these folks actually watch the show after its first season? Because again, while the show is far from perfect, it is also way better than this 2019 caricature.
The one thing “The West Wing” absolutely nailed was the breakneck pace of life inside the White House. Before entering the government, several of my mentors who had served in the Clinton White House told me explicitly that I should watch “The West Wing” to prep for the frenetic nature and long hours of life in the Executive Office of the President. Part of the reason “The West Wing” was Sorkin’s best show was that the stakes within the show matched the stakes that his dialogue generated. “In the Shadow of Two Gunmen” remains one of the best-paced episodes in television history.
As the show matured, both Sorkin (and Sorkin’s replacement showrunner John Wells) shed the DNA it carried over from Sorkin’s “The American President” and ditched the Big Speech Theory of Politics. Oh sure, there was speechifying, but it was limited to Bartlet talking to his own aides or fellow Democrats, or within the confines of presidential debates — places where good rhetoric might plausibly matter. In its place, the writers were not afraid to put in some hardball politics.
One season pivoted around a possible impeachment of President Bartlet, in which his White House survived in part by goading Republicans into overreaching. Another featured a government shutdown brought about by an implacable GOP speaker of the House — a political showdown that Bartlet wins by not backing down. The Bartlet team had contentious debates about politicking vs. policymaking. With each passing season, the show depicted an evermore conservative and cynical GOP.
The Capraesque DNA is preserved in “The West Wing,” but both 9/11 and increasing polarization eventually gave the show a darker view of both politics and policymaking. Slate’s David Haglund was correct when he observed that the show’s Qumar arc was among its best. Bartlet reluctantly agrees to kill the Qumari defense minister after evidence emerges of that fictional state’s role in supporting terrorism. The ensuing aftermath ran for multiple seasons and offered no neat solutions and little comfort.
To repeat myself, the show was not perfect. Any show that presumes one can fix Social Security in a single episode is taking some serious leaps of logic. But the show actually presaged Barack Obama’s rise in the character of Matt Santos, as played by Jimmy Smits. “The West Wing” scribe Eli Attie has acknowledged he explicitly modeled Santos after Obama.
If the left wants to spurn and caricature “The West Wing,” that is their right. It remains a far better show than, say, “House of Cards.” Sure, politics have changed in the past 20 years. That does not mean “The West Wing” lacks value.
The show was flawed. It also had its strengths, however — and after its first season, a lot of its weaknesses got sanded off at the edges.
Daniel W. Drezner (@dandrezner) is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and a regular contributor to the Washington Post’s PostEverything feature.