I’ve been interested in politics since I was small enough to fit on my grandpa’s lap. In my family, we were big Reagan fans, and I can remember watching his speeches and press conferences with a sense of adoration for the man who reminded me of my beloved Grandpa. I used to have tea parties where I hosted Ron and Nancy. (Because we were close friends, and I could call them “Ron” and “Nancy”.) I was probably the only 10-year-old in the country who crocheted a scarf for the President.
Yes, I have been this geeky my whole life.
And then, like manna from heaven for a politics junkie like me, the greatest TV show ever premiered: The West Wing.
The characters were witty. They walked fast and talked even faster. They were smart and sophisticated, self-deprecating and self-conscious. They were also full of high ideals and possess a genuine desire to do right by the country, not just make money or a name for themselves.
In short, they were entirely fictional.
And that’s the one downfall of the show. It’s ruined politics for me. No one can measure up to Aaron Sorkin’s Jed Bartlet or Leo McGarry (who live on, along with the rest of the cast of The West Wing, on Twitter. Including CJ’s goldfish, Gail.). They weren’t perfect and I often disagreed with the policy decisions they promoted (a decidedly liberal agenda). But they genuinely wanted to make the country better. As genuinely as fictional characters can, I suppose.
That’s what’s missing in modern politics. The sense that our elected officials and candidates actually give a damn about this country. The Bartlet Administration made a lot of concessions and compromised plenty, sometimes a little too much. But how refreshing to see politicians, albeit fake ones, give a little here and there for the common good. It’s sharp contrast to our current state of affairs, where a politician is in danger of losing his job precisely because he is willing to compromise. When did compromise become such a dirty word? As political blogger Doug Mataconis says:
You can’t govern without compromising. Compromise is what created the Constitution and compromise is inherent in the very structure of the government the Founders gave us. Until the day comes that you can convince 100% of the people that you are right about everything, there will ALWAYS be a need to compromise.
But back to The West Wing…
After Season 4, Sorkin left, as well as Rob Lowe, who played the popular Sam Seaborn. The writing took a downturn, and my favorite characters began acting—well—out of character. Most notably, Season 5 Leo became a hostile, crotchedy old man. I almost wanted thim to start drinking again, if only to improve his demeanor. Josh Malina, one of Sorkin’s “go-to” actors, brought humor to the show, but overall, the series lost the comedic edge that balanced the serious policy issues each episode centered on and made it more human. Seasons 6 and 7, the show’s last, introduced new characters from both sides of the aisle. Jimmy Smits, who played Democrat candidate for President, Matt Santos, was a thinly disguised caricature of then-Senator Barack Obama. Alan Alda portrayed his rival for the Presidency, a GOP candidate that wouldn’t have a chance of surviving the current Republican party if he were real. He made way too much sense and didn’t carry a Bible to thump wherever he went. I don’t want to give too much away to those who may not have had the pleasure of seeing the series in its entirety, but there were a few happy conclusions for the characters I’d come to love, and for that reason I still rewatch the last two seasons.
Below are some of my favorite moments from The West Wing. I’ll only embed one video to save loading time, but I strongly encourage you to take a peek at the other links to my favorite clips. If you’ve never watched, I hope they encourage you to give the series a try. If you are a Wing-nut like me, I hope they give you a smile!
Best lines: “They sent me two turkeys. The most photo-friendly of the two gets a Presidential pardon and a full life at a children’s zoo; the runner-up gets eaten.” “If the Oscars were like that, I’d watch.”
We meet Bartlet for the first time, when he chastises right-wing religious fundamentalists – (Season 1, Pilot)
Best line: “You’ll denounce these people, Al, you’ll do it publicly. And until you do, you can all get your fat asses out of my White House.”
Bartlet, having taken painkillers for his back, wanders into a staff meeting with hilarious results. – (Season 1, Five Votes Down)
Best lines: “Which ones did you take, sir? The Vicodin or the Percocet?” <Bartlet pauses> “I wasn’t supposed to take both?”
Donna harangues Josh about wanting her money back, in the form of rebate checks from the tax surplus. A funny, but accurate, explanation of the policy differences between the GOP and the Democrats. – (Season 1, Mr. Willis of Ohio)
Best lines: “I want my money back.” “Then you shouldn’t have voted for us!”
Toby arranges a military funeral for a homeless veteran using Bartlet’s name. Haunting scenes of the funeral interspersed with a boys’ choir singing “Little Drummer Boy”. – (Season 1, In Excelsios Deo)
Best line: “Toby, if we start pulling strings like this, you don’t think every homeless veteran will start come out of the woodwork?” “I can only hope, Sir.”
The Secret Plan to Fight Inflation. – (Season 1, Celestial Navigation)
Best line: “Are you telling me that not only did you invent a secret plan to fight inflation, but now you don’t support it?”
Bartlet verbally b****slaps a talk-show radio host (a parody of the real Dr. Laura) – (Season 2, The Midterms)
Best line: “One last thing: while you may be mistaking this for your monthly meeting of the ignorant tight-ass club, in this building, when the President stands, NOBODY sits.”
Bartlet calls the Butterball Hotline for Turkey advice. – (Season 3, The Indians in the Lobby)
Best line: “If I cook (the stuffing) inside the turkey, is there a chance I could kill my guests? I’m not saying that’s necessarily a deal-breaker.”
Josh, Toby, and Donna miss the motorcade back to Air Force One while on the campaign trail, and encounter time zone difficulties in Indiana. – (Season 4, 20 Hours in America)
Best lines: “We changed time zones?! We cha—we changed—TIME ZONES?!” “What kind of schmuck-ass system…” “Ok, this is a whole new thing now. My guys are going to have to walk this off a little bit.”
Speaker Haffley reneges on an agreed proposal to pass a continuing resolution in order to avoid a government shutdown. Bartlet stands up to him. – (Season 5, Separation of Powers)
Best line: “Then shut it down.”
The final scene of the series. I cry like a baby every time. – (Season 7, Tomorrow)
Very nice synopsis and accurate too. West Wing was aired here too, not having a television I didn’t watch very much of it, but my friends did. As you said, pure fiction but still entertaining.
Blessings from Geoff in a cold and wet Cape Town. (Winter in the southern hemisphere)
West Wing was one of my all-time favorites; well-written, well-acted, thought-provoking, with nice humorous bits as ballast to the heavier themes. So agree with you about the lack of compromise in our government right now. It is so discouraging. I just want someone to be a real leader and step out and speak the truth, call out those that lie or exaggerate or behave in a manner unbecoming of a statesman (and I don’t mean the ridiculous sex scandals, though those are inappropriate as well). We don’t let our children get away with name-calling and resorting to the cheap retort to resolve a problem, so why are we letting our elected officials do that? I tried for one month — and what a month Feb was! — to view every major political story in the media from BOTH sides of the political spectrum, both tv & print. Talk about something to make your head spin! Anyone who thinks that one major cable news is more truthful than the “other” side is mistaken and needs to question whether they are only hearing what they want to hear. Cable News isn’t the only problem, but as long as we go for the soundbite, so will our politicians, instead of trying to do what they were elected to do! Stepping off my soap box now….
Sorkin has a new series premiering in a few months, about a right-wing newscaster. Should be interesting.
“Babies come with hats.”
Jeb Bartlett was one of my favorite TV characters of all time. I was so disappointed when Sorkin left. I still watched, but it always felt a little forced. Like when you shrink your favorite sweater and still try and wear it. You can stretch it and get away with it, but it’s still slight uncomfortable. Great W Post.