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The lasting, complicated legacy of The West Wing

We explore the real-life influence of the fictional Bartlet administration on the first episode of Primetime, a new podcast about how television shapes and reflects American culture.

The cast of the The West Wing. NBC/Getty Images

In 2012, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke at an awards ceremony on Capitol Hill. She told a story about a Myanmarese official, someone she met on one of her many travels abroad, who was trying to learn about American politics and democracy, not by reading the Constitution or the Federalist Papers — but by watching The West Wing.

The West Wing ran from 1999 to 2006 and centered on a fictional president, Jed Bartlet, and his White House staff. It’s a beloved show with devoted fans, and it’s had a lasting influence on how many Americans think about the real-life presidency.

The show portrayed an idealistic vision of American politics, featuring a witty, ethical president who could unite the country with an impassioned speech. But the show’s idealism was unrealistic — and that’s a problem, because it set viewers up for disappointment with the much messier reality of US politics.

The West Wing’s fictional Oval Office was also mostly white and male. It left a lot of Americans out of its vision of liberal politics.

The first episode of Primetime, a new Vox podcast hosted by Todd VanDerWerff, examines the lasting, complicated legacy of The West Wing — a political fantasy that’s had real-world influence.

Primetime is a show about the power of television. Because to understand American culture, you have to understand TV. In season one, we’re digging into the ways presidents have used TV to further their political ambitions — and how TV has used the presidency to further its own goals.

Subscribe to Primetime on Apple, Stitcher, Spotify, Google Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts.