If only life really imitated the art of The West Wing
It’s speculated the master showman just might surprise everyone by attending the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner. The last president to skip the event was Reagan, and he’d just been shot.
Having declared war on the press, U.S. president Donald Trump has tweeted his unwillingness to enter the den of the enemy. Yet there would be a tidy symmetry — returning to the scene of the fateful roast where, in 2011, President Barack Obama played for laughs at Trump’s expense — a humiliation some theorize prompted him to run for office in the first place.
A consonant dilemma was presaged on The West Wing, Aaron Sorkin’s political drama. At a correspondents’ dinner, fictional president Jed Bartlet nails one-liners while his less formidable vice-president, “Bingo Bob,” delivers a substantive address, one eye on the party nomination. Later, speechwriters wrangle over the perils of helping an ill-qualified candidate appear presidential just because he might be electable.
“I don’t care who you surround this guy with, he’s going to wield a tremendous amount of power,” warns Toby Ziegler, communications director. “Go find someone you can honestly respect.” If only life did imitate art. There are many moments of symmetry, noticed while bingewatching The West Wing through an unshakeable flu, which set in shortly after Trump’s inauguration. It turns out, the antidote to a reckless world leader and a lingering cold is precisely the same: bed rest and a steady stream of political idealism.
Beginning in 1999, The West Wing buttressed viewers through the waning months of Clinton’s scandalplagued presidency. It was inspiring and passive-aggressive, modelling a kinder, nobler White House.
Vanity Fair described the show’s impact: “It was as if each week Sorkin and his colleagues were writing the counter-factual, shoulda-been history of the Gore administration.”
Opening a window into the backrooms of Washington, Sorkin’s tidy narrative arcs always landed comfortably where the moral compass pointed. In the post-truth chaos of the past eight weeks, such optimism is more wanting than ever.
The show engaged in thoughtful policy debate. It exposed the folly of partisan constraints on scientific research. It skewered hyper-adversarial Senate confirmation hearings.
Time and again, the show tackled issues of terrorism and racial profiling. In the fraught weeks after 9/11 — a time when real-life Americans of Arab descent were being randomly harassed and assaulted in the streets — a special episode explored the nature of antiAmerican extremism. Seizing a teachable moment, senior staff likened the connection between Islam and Islamic extremism to that between Christianity and the KKK.
It’s hard to imagine this perspective would hold sway in an administration fighting to ban travel from some Muslim-majority countries. An administration that can’t denounce a congressman’s xenophobic outburst — “We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies” — endorsed by former KKK grand wizard David Duke.
Successful TV shows often owe their appeal to a dose of nostalgia. If the U.S. never had a government quite so earnestly principled as the fictional Bartlet administration, at least it was once a place where this civic-minded version of governance was embraced as an ideal.
There’s a palpable nostalgia, if not for idealism, at least for a time when government seemed sane. A time when cabinet appointments understood their portfolios and words were connected to truth. When life imitating art transcended a cheap reality show.