Earlier this month, a fundraising email supporting former Vice President and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden prominently invoked a fictional character.
The message came from actor Richard Schiff, who’s currently starring on ABC’s The Good Doctor. But Schiff is much more well-known for his role on The West Wing, Aaron Sorkin’s beloved NBC drama about a fictional White House. The show ran from 1999 to 2006 and won 29 Emmys — including one for Schiff, who played dyspeptic White House communications director Toby Ziegler.
So in supporting Biden, Schiff predictably nodded to his West Wing character — a common practice whenever an actor supports a politician, the better to convince their fans to donate cash to the cause.
But for me, Schiff’s appeal went much further than playing on fame to raise funds. Take a look at it:
A new fundraising pitch from the Biden campaign under West Wing actor @Richard_Schiff’s name: “Sadly, President Bartlett is just a TV character. But luckily, Joe Biden is real and he is running for president.” pic.twitter.com/DhaN0F7Eg8— Sahil Kapur (@sahilkapur) September 8, 2019
Does Schiff’s message directly compare Biden to fictional president Jed Bartlet (played by Martin Sheen)? Not quite (it also isn’t aware that “Bartlet” has but one T at the end). But it all but tiptoes up to that line and peeks over before deciding not to do so. The implication, if nothing else, is clear: If you want to send a real-life Jed Barlet to the White House, to elect as your commander in chief a sometimes grouchy guy with a heart of gold who hails from the Northeast, you’d better vote Joe Biden. Even their initials are the same.
As I argued in the debut episode of my new podcast Primetime, whose first season (which I recorded under a former name) is about the intersection of television and the presidency, Washington can’t escape The West Wing. The series resurfaces again and again, particularly as its stars continue to make cameos in Democratic politics. (Listen to the full episode to hear several more examples.) It feels like many Democrats have an incurable case of West Wing fever — a malady I expect will only grow more heated in the weeks to come, as the show’s 20th anniversary arrives later in the month.
That’s why seeing the Joe Biden message from Schiff made me wonder something: Did The West Wing break some portion of the Democratic Party?
Jed Bartlet was a great president because he was written to be a great president
When thinking of great fictional presidents, it’s easy to think of Jed Bartlet. In Sorkin’s conception of the character, he was steely but kind, gruff but fundamentally loving.
The West Wing turned the antics of the fictional Bartlet White House into the stuff of workplace-drama dreams. It had everything: whiplash-quick patter, engaging performances, and a genuinely groundbreaking directorial style that popularized the “walk and talk” (where two characters deliver reams of dialogue while confidently striding through a frenzied office environment, as the camera follows along). But at its heart, the show earned such adoring fans, many of whom were apparently intimately involved in Democratic politics, because it tapped into the Father Knows Best paternalism that defines a certain strain of American presidential longing.
Twenty years later, The West Wing still holds a special idealistic thrill for many viewers, especially those on the left. Google searches for the series spiked after the 2016 election of Donald Trump, and the show’s presence on Netflix allowed for a similar viewership rush. In an era of presidential blather and bluster, the quiet certitude of the Bartlet administration fills a need for a more optimistic view of what our politics could be.
Yet at the same time, 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.
As former West Wing writer Eli Attie points out in Primetime’s episode on the series, The West Wing was initially conceived of as a deliberate response to the scandal-plagued Clinton White House — one that came from the left:
Part of the initial energy of The West Wing when it first went on the air was, imagine if you had a sort of a Clinton administration without the scandals, without the compromises, without the sort of calculus that made it shift to the center when it was politically expedient or politically necessary. ... It stripped away the clutter of what it’s like to work in the White House and the fact that people spend a lot of their day answering emails and sitting in boring meetings and gets to the kind of essence of decision-making. the goal of The West Wing was to entertain people first, second, third, fourth, and fifth.
Allow me to suggest that trying to make an entertaining TV show is, on the whole, a noble endeavor. But what happens when fiction proves more attractive than reality, as it so often does, especially in such a grubby arena as politics?
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.
Some of that limitation is simply due to the show being made when it was made; every television show will be forever linked to its era, and The West Wing is no different. The 1990s were one of the whitest eras in American television, and though Sorkin initially hoped to lure Sidney Poitier to play the fictional president, the cast in the series’ pilot didn’t include a single actor of color.
Concerns about The West Wing’s non-diverse casting were present even when it initially aired. Before it debuted, the NAACP denounced its lack of black characters — something the show corrected with the addition of Charlie Young, played by Dulé Hill, in episode two. But Charlie was the president’s “body man,” which brought its own challenges. For as many times as The West Wing tried to engage with the icky implications of its foremost black character being a glorified servant, it had a bad habit of centering stories that could have been about Charlie on white characters instead.
For instance, when white nationalists seemingly attempted to assassinate Bartlet, The West Wing revealed their ire was driven by Charlie dating Bartlet’s white daughter, Zoey, and that Charlie was their real target. But almost all the arcs about the fallout from the assassination were distributed among the show’s white cast members, especially Bradley Whitford’s Josh Lyman. Charlie’s existence within the universe of The West Wing was rarely more than peripheral.
Meanwhile, more recent criticism of The West Wing’s limited perspective has been bolstered by a shift in thinking among left-leaning Americans who have soured on the Clinton era and the White House’s attempts to triangulate and box out conservative Republicans. Now, in an era of increasingly noisy and fractious conversations within the Democratic Party about how the party might best serve as a check on the Trump administration, The West Wing’s vision of a liberalism driven by soaring speeches and tear-jerking moments of camaraderie that extend across the aisle feels even more alien.
How The West Wing infiltrated the Democratic Party
The irony here is that when The West Wing debuted, it was, as I mentioned above, a sort of corrective to Clintonian triangulation and the Democratic Party of the ‘90s. The show is full of moments in which Bartlet and his staffers, keyed up to do the right thing, don’t do what Clinton very much did. One episode even features a scene where Schiff’s character plaintively argues that the president should not say the era of big government is over, a direct rebuke of a line from an actual Clinton speech.
Yet the politics of the Democratic Party have moved leftward in many ways since The West Wing went off the air in 2006. If the show were to air in 2019, it would immediately be criticized for the whiteness of its cast, to say nothing of Sorkin’s irritating habit of writing strong and capable women who are only strong and capable so long as there’s no man around to render them tongue-tied. Earlier this year, when he called for Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other new members of Congress to “stop acting like young people,” it felt exactly like something an older white guy on a Sorkin TV show would say to a young woman upstart, to be met with her flustered acquiescence.
Similarly, LGBTQ issues are an important plank of the modern Democratic platform that had little to no presence within the world of The West Wing. But most crucially, the show’s neoliberal economics, where capitalism always wins, are increasingly out of touch with modern Democrats’ policy dreams.
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.
And yet that argument doesn’t hold water for everybody in the Democratic coalition. The West Wing still holds an intense fascination for many Democratic voters and at least some Democratic politicians. As political science professor Paul Musgraves of the University of Massachusetts Amherst told me during the Primetime episode:
All of these Obama-era junior officials were talking about how they would go to work in the Obama White House and it would be just like The West Wing. ... That this was the way that they had seen reality portrayed and that they wanted reality to be. ... And I think that one of the reasons why 2016 felt so personally disappointing for a lot of folks who identified with those politics was that the antithesis of The West Wing actually won the election — I mean literally, right? The West Wing getting defeated by The Apprentice.
(Brief pause for irony here, as the TV show that overtook The West Wing as the top show in its Wednesday-night time slot was a different reality show: The Bachelor.)
In supporting Joe Biden, Schiff is deliberately playing to those for whom The West Wing represents an ideal for how Washington should operate. And given Biden’s consistent lead in polling and his campaign’s continued positioning of him as the sane adult in the room, the Bartlet-esque politician is still the sort of archetype that many Democratic voters respond to. From this perspective, even Biden’s many gaffes are reminiscent of Jed Bartlet’s White House, where staffers seemed to misspeak in every other episode in ways that were misinterpreted to great comedic effect, even though they always meant well.
Biden’s lead in the polls might be slipping, but he’s still ahead. And he drives lefty Democratic voters nuts — both with his insistence that he can find a way to make Republicans bipartisan again and with his unspoken promise to replace the wild swings of the Trump White House with the type of calmer, more thoughtful approach that would make America 2015 again.
That dream seems at odds with reality, but it would be more than at home on The West Wing. Like it or not, the presidents who hold sway over the Democratic Party still include an entirely fictional one.
Primetime is a podcast about the power of television and the way it affects and reflects our culture. Check out season one — about the intersection of TV and the presidency — wherever you listen to podcasts.