The West Wing: The American Presidency as Television Drama
by Peter C. Rollins, John E. O’Connor, editors
The West Wing: Seasons 3 & 4: The Shooting Scripts
by Aaron Sorkin
In its first four years of existence, Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing won virtually every award it is possible for an American television drama to win. Not the least of these were a record-breaking streak of Emmys, the Golden Globe for best drama, two Peabody Awards, two Humanitas prizes, and the top honors from the Television Critics Association. I mention this in aid of backing up some pretty strong assertions I am going to be making on the show’s behalf and because I want to establish something. We are not just talking about another CSI or cult favorite here. It may not have been to everyone’s taste, but the quality of The West Wing as created and chiefly written by Aaron Sorkin for four years is all but unassailable. The series also came to have some importance, however transient, in our culture as that rarest of things: A truly popular television show willing to discuss issues that matter.
As a result of this richness of content, in 2002 I wrote a combined review of three books then recently published on the series. Calling The West Wing a serious TV show, I called for serious books to look at it.
The first such book was published last year. The West Wing: The American Presidency as Television Drama is a collection of 15 essays that take an informed, analytical and critical look at the series from a variety of points of view. I’ve criticized similar books about Buffy the Vampire Slayer for narrowness of critical response, and editors Peter C. Rollins and John E. O’Connor are to be commended for avoiding that trap. They’ve found room both for the series’ most ardent fans and its harshest critics, and this book’s great value is that it neither glosses over nor savages the program. If a series is important enough for a book like this to be written about it, that series should be able to stand up to great scrutiny. West Wing does, and most of the essays are insightful and persuasive.
In “The West Wing’s Textual President,” Patrick Finn states of the series’ inherent snobbery, “It is at heart a show that promises that the Ivy League will save us.” There is a certain truth to this statement. The West Wing under Sorkin was elitist in that it took the position that “smart kids” are better than “everymen.” I happen to think that this is true – of course, I also think I’m a smart kid – but I can’t disagree that in the real world, that attitude is not usually the way you win elections. Or get top 10 ratings, which is only one of the many reasons it’s heartening West Wing was as successful as it was for as long as it was. But, this may also have contributed to the series’ ratings dive in the third and fourth years.
In the introduction to the season four screenplays included in The West Wing: Seasons 3 & 4: The Shooting Scripts, Sorkin says he decided to dramatize the series fictional election that year as “Intellect in American Leadership: Virtue Or Vice.” In theory, this was promising; Sorkin’s characters thinking out loud about this or any other subject is almost always entertaining and at its best, intoxicating.
“If our jobs teach us anything it’s that we don’t know what the next President’s gonna face. If we choose someone with vision, someone with guts, someone with gravitas who’s connected to other people’s lives and cares about making them better, if we choose someone to inspire us, then we’ll be able to face what comes our way and achieve things we can’t imagine yet.” –Toby, “20 Hours in America.”
In practice, however, the election storyline offered James Brolin as a Bush-shaped tackle dummy to relieve the frustrations of Democratic voters. Though it sometimes did so artfully – a meeting between Brolin and Martin Sheen in “Posse Comitatus,” included in the script book, was a joy – too often it did not produce real drama. It’s said that in fiction the strength of your villain defines the strength of your hero; by making Bartlet’s worst enemy not his opponent but himself, Sorkin allowed Martin Sheen a chance to do some fascinating work but missed an opportunity. Why couldn’t the Republican challenger that year have been just that, a challenge?
But the shows’ elitism was balanced by reminders like this: In the episode “Six Meetings Before Lunch,” Sam, the writer played by Rob Lowe, explains:
“…education is the silver bullet. Education is everything. We don’t need little changes, we need gigantic changes. Schools should be palaces; the competition for the best teachers should be fierce, they should be making six figure salaries. Schools should be incredibly expensive for government and absolutely free of charge to its citizens, just like national defense. That’s my position. I just haven’t figured out how to do it yet.”
Many of the articles included in American Presidency as Television Drama have to do with the series treatment of “minorities”, specifically blacks and women. This subject is a perennial source of both thoughtful criticism and wild speculation when it comes to television and popular culture. It’s worth noting, as Donnalyn Pompper does in “Narratives Journalism Can’t Tell,” that when West Wing was criticized for a lack of diversity in the first season, Sorkin’s response was not to play the wounded artist, as some have, but to acknowledge a possible flaw in his own work. He then put his words where his words were, if you take the point, by creating a number of African American (and other “minority”) characters for the series, few if any of whom could reasonably be called tokens. Not the least of these was Charlie, President Bartlet’s personal aide, played remarkably by Dule Hill.
In “Parliamentary Novels, West Wing and Professionalism,” Michelle Mouton takes a small group of students who were previously unfamiliar with the series through two episodes and records their reaction. She quotes a students “…ambivalence” at the episode “The Midterms” for its “…portrayal of African Americans as an automatic ‘community’.” In this episode, Charlie is able to “open up to a (black) complete stranger” in a way that he does not do with his employers, friends and colleagues on the series, almost all white. Interestingly, the editors of this volume cite the same scene in the introduction, as Christina Lane does in her “Culture Of Gender and Race.” The editors call it: “…a tangible reminder of what (Charlie’s) position so near to the top must mean as a role model to youngsters of his race.” Lane concludes that “…the series honors the histories of the … second-wave feminist … and civil rights movements. It insists upon making those histories visible rather than subjugating them into the background of the primary (white, male) character’s lives.”
Sorkin’s West Wing was also populated with brave, “non-traditional” and assertive female characters from Zoe Bartlet, the president’s daughter, to Mrs. Landingham, his late secretary. But some have hinted at veiled sexism in Sorkin’s writing of women, who he sometimes seems to delight in humiliating, albeit often in very funny ways. The argument is first approached here when Patrick Finn writes:
“In a move that cries out for Freudian analysis, the second season introduced the beautiful, blonde, Southern, Republican lawyer Ainsley Hayes (Emily Proctor) who is kept in the basement of the West Wing in the ‘heat exchange room.’ Hayes gets and maintains her job by ‘whupping’ Sam (“In This White House”)…What is the audience to make of the Democrat Sorkin’s desire to lock a young female Republican in the basement?” -wm Staci Beavers refers to the same episode in “The West Wing as Pedagogical Tool,” asking, “(Hayes) often wins her arguments with Sam, but could her office be a stand-in for the fires of hell awaiting those who hold conservative points of view?”
Well, they certainly can make a Freudian analysis of it if they wish to, or assume childish revenge fantasies on Sorkin’s part. But as Myron A. Levine points out in “The West Wing and the West Wing,” “This televised representation may not be so much the result of a conscious or even unconscious bias on the part of the scriptwriter but a reflection of Washington reality.” Levine cites an instance where Jimmy Carter’s White House public liaison Midge Costanza was “…treated shabbily in a reorganization effort led by chief of staff Hamilton Jordan. Jordan, who distrusted Costanza’s commitment to advocacy, reassigned many of her duties and had her office moved to the White House basement.” More contemporarily, Sharon Waxman’s “Inside The West Wing’s New World” suggests another possible mother of Ainsley’s discomfort, former White House staff member and West Wing consultant Dee Dee Myers. Asked how the staff might tease a new recruit, she answered, “They could stick her in a horrible office. David Gergen, a Reagan and Nixon consultant who joined the Clinton staff, was put in the old White House barbershop.” It’s also worth remembering that such hazing is not limited to women or members of the opposition party, either in the real White House or the fictitious one. This was shown when Will Bailey (Joshua Malina) replaced Sam as Deputy Communications Director; his office was filled with bicycles, campaign posters, and in one episode, a goat. Amy Gardner (Mary Louise Parker) and Joe Quincy (Matthew Perry) received similar treatment when they joined the staff.
Still, at a recent Q & A Sorkin acknowledged a weakness that sometimes creeps into his female characters: Writing them to meet the needs of the males. A useful example of this weakness, also concerning Hayes, is referred to in Finn’s “Textual President.” Finn reminds us to consider Ainsley demonstrating her “lipstick feminism” in order to put left wing feminists in their place (“Night Five”). In this episode, when Ainsley arrives for work in a formal dress after having been called away from a social function, Sam teasingly admires her…
“Hayes, you could make a good dog break his leash… Whoa, I didn’t even see that thing from the back.”
…and is accused by an office temp of demeaning her. Ainsley defends Sam (and herself, telling the other woman not to speak for her), saying:
“If someone says something that offends you, tell them, but all women don’t have to think alike. . . sexual revolution tends to get in the way of actual revolution. Nonsense issues distract attention away from real ones: pay equity, child care, honest-to-God sexual harassment and in this case a speech in front of the U.N. General Assembly,”
I agree with this, and it’s safe to assume Sorkin does too. But how much stronger this scene would have been if he could have assigned the other side of the argument to one of the female principals. Even a secondary but regular character like Ginger, the Communications Director’s aide. Instead, a “ringer” was brought in for the sole purpose of presenting an argument Ainsley could demolish, and then never being seen again.
Pamela Ezell’s contention in “The Sincere Sorkin White House” is that the aftermath of the exposure of President Bartlet’s multiple sclerosis, which in The West Wing’s third season saw the first family and White House staff subjected to a battery of lawyers, congresspeople and medial ethics boards, “…served to make these characters more real, more human, than they were in the program’s first two seasons.” I happen to think the characters were just as human in the first years, but it’s hard to refute the contention that they were idealized versions of what we might expect a White House staff to be. Sorkin himself cops to the fact that “the show’s juice [has] always been wish fulfillment,” in his foreword to the second script book. But here’s my thing. Thomas Jefferson believed in writing of an idealized people and raising the real people to that level through education, rather than “writing down” to a lower but perhaps less utopian level. Watching West Wing brought that to mind when people spoke dialogue like this, from the episode “100,000 Airplanes”:
“I think ambition is good. I think overreaching is good. I think giving people a vision of government that’s more than Social Security checks and debt reduction is good. I think government should be optimistic.”
Myron A. Levine’s informative “The Transformed Presidency” contrasts the office and the man as presented in the series with the reality as we’ve known it since FDR. His essay is of value not only to fans of the show, but also to those seeking insight into presidents and the presidency itself. That’s true of much of the book as a whole. Sorkin fans and political junkies – there’s a good deal of overlap – will find nearly equal satisfaction.
Preceding Levine’s finale, two of the last chapters in the book are given over to the show’s critics. Both are fiercely committed to the premise that every line, every character on The West Wing was set down for the sole purpose of advancing a political agenda. Chris Lehmann’s “The Feel-Good Presidency” argues that The West Wing’s “tacit mission is to revive sagging liberal spirits,” that the show was “Bill Clinton’s most immediate legacy…while, of course, airbrushing out (the Clinton administration’s) more embarrassing policy failures, crimes and lapses of morality.” In “The Liberal Imagination,” John Podhoretz calls The West Wing “political pornography for liberals.” (Hey, I sympathize – that’s how I feel about Bowling for Columbine.) Perhaps because they are writers on politics, Lehmann for The Atlantic and Washington Post, Podhoretz for the Weekly Standard and New York Post, they cannot conceive of a writer for whom politics is not the primary motivating factor. But writing drama, at as successful a level as Sorkin practiced it for most of his tenure on the series, doesn’t work like that. Simplistic assertions that Jed Bartlet “is” Bill Clinton reveal an ignorance of the creative process and reduce a great drama to the level of a roman a clef style Jacqueline Susann novel.
Of course, Sorkin’s political views must inform his work as a scriptwriter, especially but not only on this series. No matter what they are writing about, writers on some level are reporting on how they see the world, and politics are a part of that world. But it seems shallow to complain that in a show about a Democratic Presidential administration, that administration might skew just a little bit liberal. There’s also evidence to support the idea that fictional presidents have almost always reflected their real counterparts at time of creation, so to criticize the Bartlet character on that basis is misleading. In his book One-Car Caravan Walter Shapiro recalls reading political novels in the ’60s whose presidential characters always resembled LBJ or JFK. He says, “When even novelists cannot transcend our limited supply of presidential archetypes, it suggests an almost royalist reluctance to commit psychological regicide and mentally dethrone our current leader.”
Where Sorkin left himself open to being interpreted as at best disingenuous or at worst, lying, is by protesting his innocence too much in the face of such accusations. Sometimes, he did use the series to bash those he disliked politically, such as Dr. Laura, and it’s possible he would have done better to emulate the stance of Norman Lear on this. Writer/producer Lear, with Maude, All In The Family and other shows of the ’70s, made more blatantly leftist expressions than Sorkin would dream of. And made no apologies for it. He told writers Robert S. Alley and Irby B. Brown, “I was a grown man, and of course I had political opinions and ideas. Why wouldn’t they show up?”
Getting back to Lehmann and Podhoretz, even if I agreed with their articles’ premise, I would have to criticize them for seemingly watching the show with an agenda, and not very closely at that. In his piece, Lehmann says Bartlet’s White House “dotes on hate-crime legislation.” But in four years, precisely two episodes of The West Wing dealt with this subject in any substantial way. And neither of these show an administration that “dotes” on the issue. In one, the characters take different sides on the subject and in the other, Bartlet himself is shown to be cowardly when it comes to speaking up for the rights of some minorities, specifically gays.
Podhoretz mocks a scene from the pilot episode, saying it reveals a pastor who clashed with Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford) on a CNN-styled TV show as being “not only an anti-Semite but so ignorant he doesn’t know [the order of the 10 Commandments].” Trouble is, Podhoretz is misremembering, combining three different characters, only one of them a clergyman•not the implied anti-Semite or theological ignoramus–and one a woman. He also misquotes Sorkin’s dialogue, an insult to any writer, but a special affront when discussing the work of one whose dialogue is so much his bread and butter. Like criticizing a Johnny Cash record and then calling him a tenor.
One more thing before I leave Podhoretz. What he says about Clinton’s inauguration here hints at a meanness of spirit:
“Easy listening, boomer-style, was represented by the saxophonist Kenny G (who was said to be Clinton’s favorite musician, in case you were wondering whether the pop-culture crazed president’s taste for pop culture is any more elevated than his taste in women).”
This suspicion is confirmed when you know that Podhoretz also once wrote, referring to his perception that West Wing was preachy, and following Sorkin’s drug problems and arrest,
“I don’t know about you, but frankly, I don’t need any lessons on theology, destiny, public service, job creation, pay equity, or conservative ideology from a crack addict.”
Whether Podhoretz needs lessons on these subjects is beside the point. But it’s at least as likely as Aaron Sorkin needing any lessons on writing drama from a pundit. I’d be happier to hear what Podhoretz and Lehmann had to say about writing drama if I thought that either of them had ever written a drama in their lives. Any drama, we won’t even talk about being able to clear a bar as high as Sorkin set with his best work. Of course, the bitter, dark irony of that statement is that in a misbegotten attempt to bring West Wing a more “balanced” perspective, executive producer John Wells recently hired as a consultant to the show… John Podhoretz. And Aaron Sorkin? As educated viewers know, and even uninformed ones must now sense, he don’t work there no more. More about that in a moment.
Many of the criticisms detailed in the essays mentioned above can be answered by this gentle reminder: To talk about the philosophy and intellectualism of a program like The West Wing while losing sight of the bare bones of the matter is like watching the trapeze instead of the trapeze artists. You want to be assured that the wires are strong, but they’re not the act. In Inside The West Wing, one of the books I reviewed last time, author Paul Challen writes “It doesn’t really matter if you know what they are talking about politically; you just have to trust that it’s all more or less accurate and follow the dialogue and drama and evaluate it on those grounds.” I would add to this that it doesn’t really matter if you agree with what they’re talking about politically. Yes, West Wing was a serious TV show, and we need serious books to look at it. And this is great as a first such volume. But in his “Screenwriters Perspective,” Jason P. Vest apologizes for not providing “a literary analysis of (the show’s) dramatic merit,” as I hope the next such book will. Because when it comes to West Wing, that was the silver bullet.
Which brings us to, again, the seed of it all: The West Wing: Seasons 3 & 4: The Shooting Scripts.
Although he took home another Emmy for best drama at the end of the third season, for too much of that year Sorkin was, by his own admission in this book and elsewhere, stumbling around trying to recover his creative balance. He had tripped over a number of things during the hiatus, from the should-have-been-personal (his drug bust) to the all-too-universal (9/11). The resulting scripts were never quite “bad,” and some, including those reprinted here, were as memorable as any. But too often it was like watching a brilliant pianist have an off night. Still a good show by anybody elses’ standards, but slightly disappointing compared to what you knew he was capable of.
Sometimes it was just too tempting to assume the characters spoke for Sorkin. When recovering alcoholic Leo calmly explains that he didn’t tell most people about a relapse he suffered during Bartlet’s first presidential campaign because –
“I went to rehab. My friends embraced me when I got out. You relapse and it’s not like that that. Get away from me, that’s what it’s like.”
– it’s all but impossible for a tuned-in audience member not to wonder if similar words crossed Sorkin’s lips.
A few days after 9/11, the screenwriter called NBC executive Peter Roth to say that The West Wing creative team wanted their season premiere postponed. Sorkin had come to the conclusion that “Democrats and Republicans and the White House versus Congress and running for re-election, it’s just all in bad taste right now…the attacks had profoundly affected everyone in the country except these characters, who suddenly were living in a world that no longer existed.”
So he decided to write a special episode to talk about the history of terrorism, and try to acknowledge through his characters this change in the world around them. A noble experiment, it was judged by most critics a failure. In American Presidency as Television Drama, Myron A. Levine quotes The Washington Post’s Tom Shales – “Even in this moment of pain, trauma, heartbreak, destruction, assault and victimization, Hollywood liberals can still find some excuse to make Americans look guilty.”
I thought the episode•”Isaac and Ishmael”–worked ok, and held up in the Bravo rerun over two years later. Reading the script supports that, though it plays better than it reads. What hobbled it almost out of the gate was the uneasy mix of show business and a shaky but earnest attempt to dramatize a still-gaping wound. This was exemplified by the unfortunate decision to try to pimp the upcoming “real” series premiere at the start of the special episode. Tune in next week, the audience was told, and given a laundry list of promised storylines, including Janel Moloney merrily chirping, “And I get a boyfriend!” Ghastly.
Such anvil-dropping moments aside, this second script book reminds us even more than the first of the sensitivity and skill of the best dramatic ensemble then working. Speaking of his esteem for that cast and crew, Sorkin says, “It’s not ‘all right there on the page’ as I would like to believe, and what is there on the page needs to be realized.” He’s right, of course, and a couple of scripts from this collection illustrate that point nicely. When, in “25,” Toby returns to a White House in crisis over the kidnapping of the president’s daughter and must matter-of-factly relate that his children have been born the same night, no words can equal the split-second, ecstatic moment that Richard Schiff allowed Toby to allow himself before returning to the grim work at hand. Just as the script for “Bartlet For America” – and yes, that is where Dean got it–can give us Leo’s words of love for his friend the president. But it cannot give us John Spencer’s breathless, almost run-on sentence way of speaking them, showing his normally button-down character coming unraveled just ever so slightly.
The final two scripts included here, by no coincidence whatsoever, are also the last Sorkin has written for his series to date and possibly the last he will ever write for it. Boy oh boy, if ever a pair of episodes cried out for analysis, these are the two. The circumstances of Sorkin’s departure are a subject for much conjuncture among his fans and the press. The question is “did he jump or was he pushed?” To his credit, I think, Sorkin has refrained from complaining publicly about his treatment and does not do so in this book, but what seems to have happened is this: The NBC suits were, typically, willing to overlook the series scheduling and budget overages so long as the show was riding high. But, although the fourth season was something of a ninth-inning rally for Sorkin creatively, the series continued to slip in the ratings and NBC stepped in and gave him an ultimatum: Change the way you do things, or get out.
Sorkin says he thinks of the final two episodes as a parting gift to him from the cast, crew and staff, who did some of their best work of the entire series on them. The scripts can also be read as Sorkin’s parting words to his creation as he “slips out the door and into the darkness,” to quote his last stage direction. The plot goes like this: The president’s daughter is kidnapped. To avoid the nation being blackmailed, he decides that the best way he can serve and protect both his country and his child is to temporarily step down. In what Will Bailey calls “a fairly stunning act of patriotism and a fairly ordinary act of fatherhood,” he hands over power to his political enemy, the Republican house speaker(the Vice-President having had to resign in scandal an episode or so previously and not yet replaced).
I’m sure I don’t have to spell out the parallel, do I?
The series is now in the hands of John Wells and a fully functioning writing staff, as opposed to Sorkin’s team of researchers and story-breakers. The results have been mixed. Some Sorkin fans, television critics, and this writer, feel that it is simply not the same series and have tuned out in despair. Some viewers have still found enough to enjoy in The West Wing 2.0, particularly the work of the cast, to make continued viewing worthwhile. Depressingly, it seems not everybody can hear the difference between a Sorkin script and one by a journeyman writer, much as I would like to believe they can.
The new team did garner a number of Golden Globe nominations, though some of this may have been carryover from Sorkin’s last season. In any case, they didn’t win. One script has also been nominated for a Writer’s Guild award. But I think few would argue with me if I say that The West Wing is now, for better or worse, a television show like dozens of others. Mostly for better but perhaps a little bit for worse, for much of its first four years, it was a television show like no other.
Aaron Sorkin’s experience seems to me to reflect both the dream and the reality of working in TV: What is possible, and what will not be allowed.
Here’s to what’s possible.
Author’s note: I want to acknowledge the other members of the Aaron Sorkin Yahoo!Groups mailing list, who helped me with some research and fact checking for this article. And special thanks to Jo Gates for her perspective. As should go without saying, any mistakes and all opinions above are mine, not theirs.
The West Wing Episode Guide: http://www.westwingepguide.com/