He ran the free world, and you wanted to run your fingers through his hair. That unfussy bouffant that capped a jockishly handsome face and concealed, by all accounts, an electric-quick brain. He brought about change in America, in how the country’s economy and welfare system worked. And he did the same abroad, most notably with his support for the peace process in Northern Ireland. What’s more, he played a mean solo on the saxophone.
But then, in 1998, it turned out that President Bill Clinton “did not have sexual relations with that woman” – which is to say, he had an affair with a White House intern in her early twenties, named Monica Lewinsky. A year later, the House of Representatives began impeachment proceedings against him. Even though Clinton was eventually acquitted by the Senate, the boyish charm had suddenly turned wolfish.
The Democratic Party needed a new president pronto, and – despite what the books say about about Gore and Bush and Florida – it got one. Twenty years ago, on 22 September 1999, the pilot episode of The West Wing beamed into American households.
Written by Aaron Sorkin and directed by Thomas Schlamme, the pilot is a fine if overstuffed hour spent with a selection of senior White House staffers. The Deputy Chief of Staff said something dumb on television and now fears for his job. The Deputy Communications Director discovers that the woman he spent the night with is a part-time escort. The Press Secretary is wondering how to break the news that the as-yet-unseen President fell off his bike.
But then, with only a few minutes of the episode remaining, the President himself – Josiah Edward “Jed” Bartlet – appears for the first time, quoting the First Commandment: “I am the Lord your God. Thou shalt worship no other god before me.” He means it impishly, but it’s the prelude to some righteous fury on his part, aimed at a group of religious leaders who are prevaricating over whether to denounce a fundamentalist group that threatened his granddaughter. The scene is Bartlet in summary: sharp, moral, devoted. We’ll learn that he even has a Nobel Prize for economics.
Television had just created a new leader faster than any democratic process could.
The first thing they teach in West Wing classes is that the show, as conceived by Sorkin, was meant to focus on the staff, leaving the President as an intermittent, fleeting presence. Bartlet’s entrance – or, rather, Martin Sheen’s performance – changed that. More of him was stirred into the cocktail, and the public wanted to order another. In late 2000, soon after 25 million people tuned in to the first episode of the show’s second season, a New York Times poll suggested that Bartlet would win 75 per cent of the vote were he to run in that year’s real-life presidential race against Al Gore and George W. Bush.
But how would he fare against Donald Trump? Or against any of the current Democratic candidates? In a sense, Bartlet is already romping to victory. As Richard Schiff, the actor who played the crabby, crusading communications director Toby Ziegler, said when I spoke to him recently: “There’s a regeneration of interest in The West Wing that’s happening partly because of the political nightmare we’re in. Younger people, who are becoming politically aware, are being introduced to it by their friends and by their parents.” It helps, as well, that all seven seasons of the show are on Netflix in the US; that great algorithmic repurposing machine for 1990s and 2000s television.
I admit, I too have drawn The West Wing around me like a blanket, as a comfort against political turmoil. I started watching the series again in 2016, for the first time in over a decade, but it felt like I’d never stopped. The intervening years had been spent suited and demoralised as a political journalist in Westminster, and I’d had dozens of conversations about the show with other journalists, researchers, civil servants and politicians. Even in that insular part of the UK – which typically delights at cynical portraits of its own ineptitude, such as Yes Minister (1980-82) and The Thick of It (2005-12) – it was practically a parlour game to ask: “Which West Wing character are you?”
You could know a person, or at least a little about what they thought about themselves, by their answer. Those who mentioned Allison Janney’s C.J. Cregg: cool-headed and down-to-earth. Bradley Whitford’s Josh Lyman: effervescent and quick-witted. John Spencer’s Leo McGarry: parental and in charge. Rob Lowe’s Sam Seaborn: decent and really, really, really, ridiculously good-looking. Of course, only the preposterously self-assured would say “Bartlet”.
What was strange was that the game crossed party lines. It’s true that then, as now, The West Wing appealed more to people in the centre-left section of that increasingly meaningless spectrum – Britain’s Liberal Democrats have had a cast photo, signed by the late John Spencer (“To the Liberal Campaigns Department. Keep the faith.”), hanging in their headquarters for years.
But even people on the right were West Wingnuts, despite the show’s tendency to present its Republican characters as the villains of the week. I lost count of the number of times I heard some low-tax campaigner quote Sam reminiscing about his time as a corporate lawyer: “I left Gage Whitney making $400,000 a year, which means I paid 27 times the national average in income tax. I paid my fair share, and the fair share of 26 other people.” In a normal political age, it had something for almost everyone.
This was Schiff’s experience, too. “Republicans would come up to us and go, ‘I love the show, I hate your politics.’ Even General Alexander Haig came up to me at a cocktail party and pointed his finger in my face and said, ‘I find your show eerie’, and then walked away, which I took as a big compliment because he was saying, I think, that he found our show to be eerily realistic to what his life was like.”
Realistic? Some will scoff at the thought. In many respects, The West Wing followed the currents of American television drama more than it followed the currents of everyday politics. It had will-they-won’t-they love stories, particularly the subplot of Josh and his senior assistant Donna Moss (Janel Moloney). It had cliff-hangers, such as when Bartlet’s daughter Zoey (Elisabeth Moss) was left kidnapped between seasons. And it had a whole lot of grandeur. The finest episode of the entire series, ‘Two Cathedrals’, ends with the rain-drenched President pausing, perfectly in time with a lightning flash and the guitar-solo soundtrack, before revealing to the world whether he will stand for a second term, having previously covered up his MS diagnosis.
Even the show’s most famous leitmotif – its walk-and-talk scenes through the corridors of the White House set – was artifice. “In the actual West Wing it’s a very unlikely occurrence because you’ll run into a wall very soon,” explains Schiff. “It’s a tiny little law office, it’s not a big place.” And so a generation may have grown up thinking that being a political advisor means trading quickfire quips with your colleagues while on the move; when in fact it’s a cramped job, often spent in the company of spreadsheets.
Yet The West Wing made its own sort of realism – through the interplay of its characters, through the accumulation of details. Watching ‘Two Cathedrals’ again recently, I noticed one such detail for the first time. Just before the climax of the episode, Bartlet’s personal aide, Charlie Young (Dulé Hill), takes off his own raincoat and puts it down before heading out into the storm with his uncoated boss. If the President doesn’t mind getting wet, then neither does he. It’s tremendous.
People-who-know say that, even with its concessions to drama, the show certainly captured something true about the White House then. It did so by hiring politicos such as Dee Dee Myers, who served as Clinton’s Press Secretary for two years and is thought to be the inspiration for C.J., and Peggy Noonan, a speechwriter and adviser to Ronald Reagan, as consultants.
“There’s a vivid sense [in The West Wing] that the President has to constantly multitask and be prepared for the unexpected. That was very real,” says Todd S. Purdum, who is now married to Myers and was a political reporter at the time. “So too, actually, was the sense that people are working as hard as they can for, basically, the right reasons. That doesn’t necessarily hold true today.”
The show even struck some deeper truths. The opening two-part episode of the fourth season, ‘20 Hours in America’, deposits Toby, Josh and Donna in Indiana after they miss the presidential motorcade and try to catch up by truck, train and plane. It’s fun and breezy, until it gets serious. Donna, so often the conscience of the group, lambasts Toby and Josh for going on and on about campaign strategy and ignoring the people they are meant to help: “You made fun of the fair, but you didn’t see they have livestock exhibitions and give prizes for the biggest tomato and the best heirloom apple. They’re proud of what they grow.” If the Democrats needed a warning about neglecting huge swathes of the country in those years – and they did – they could have heard it from Donna.
Schiff remembers ‘20 hours in America’ by remembering his father-in-law: “He was from Western Pennsylvania and abandoned the Democratic Party in 2004. Not only was he a Kennedy Democrat, but he worked in the Kennedy administration. He was coal mining engineer; my wife’s family are coal miners. So, yes, that [episode] did foretell it.” It being the mass movement of people away from the party of Clinton, Gore and Obama – and towards something else.
In 2019, the middle of the Trump presidency, it’s The West Wing’s idealism that stands out more than its brand of realism. Each episode plays almost like a civics lesson. About the proportionate response to terror attacks. About education programmes. About government funding and tax cuts. Most of its prescriptions may be from the Clinton-era, third-way playbook, but it is at least concerned with the battle of ideas.
This type of show would not be made nowadays – the proof being that it isn’t. In the years since The West Wing started to fracture in its fifth season, following Sorkin’s departure, and then ended with its seventh in 2006, a very British cynicism has crept into American political television. House of Cards (2013-18) made Kevin Spacey president by any means necessary; Designated Survivor (2016-19) blew up the Capitol and turned governing into a thriller; and Veep (2012-19) just laughed at it all.
One of the few exceptions was the big-hearted comedy series Parks and Recreation (2009-2015), for which Lowe more or less reprised his role as Sam – although, tellingly, that was set amid the small-town politics of Pawnee, in Indiana, rather than in Washington, DC.
Besides, real-life politics has become the primetime entertainment. Just this week, Sean Spicer, the man who served for six months as President Trump’s stumbling, dissembling press secretary, sashayed on to Dancing with the Stars in a voluminous neon shirt and a pair of white trousers to perform a salsa to the accompaniment of the Spice Girls’ ‘Spice Up Your Life’. It was not something you could imagine CJ, Toby, Sam, Leo or Josh doing (actually, maybe Josh). It was the victory of retweets over the republic.
Which leaves The West Wing as an artefact behind unbreakable glass. Press your nose towards it, yearn for it even, but know that it’s out of reach. The collection of annotated scripts donated by Dee Dee Myers to the William J. Clinton Presidential Library and Museum makes the point, in a way. A nod from one president to his superior successor – and a recognition, too, that that was then.
The five best episodes
5. ‘The Stackhouse Filibuster’
Everyone wishes they were somewhere else. Toby wants to hit the slopes, Sam is desperate to escape to the Hamptons, while Josh just wants to see his beloved Yankees. But C.J. will not let them leave, in case this Senate filibuster should ever end. So, instead, the gang write emails to their parents. Donna once again saves the day, as fellow grandfathers flood the Senate chamber to rescue the ailing Stackhouse.
4. ‘Bartlet for America’
Flashback episodes are fun, but watching Leo, a recovering alcoholic, relapse in a hotel room before the debate is something I have only been able to watch once. For Leo, “Bartlet for America” was not a slogan but a compulsion. In the final scene, Leo’s face crumbles as Bartlet returns the napkin containing his original scrawl of inspiration from years before.
3. ‘In the Shadow Of Two Gunmen’, Parts I and II
The start of season two begins exactly where season one finished – amid the sound of gunfire. Bartlet has been hit but is cracking jokes; Josh’s condition is critical. The flashbacks are our anaesthetic. Josh rescues Sam from helping oil firms avoid litigation. Toby saves CJ from Hollywood PR. And Leo steels Josh from under Hoynes’ nose. As RuPaul says, “we get to choose our family.”
2. ‘17 People’
The West Wing is a love story without sex or even kissing, a world where holding hands is the apotheosis of intimacy. Toby finds out about the President’s multiple sclerosis, and loses it in the Oval Office. Just next door, the gang is trying and failing to come up with jokes for the White House Correspondents’ dinner. They have to be funny enough to make Toby laugh. It would be perfect but for one glaring omission – it does not contain Allison Janney’s C.J. Cregg.
1. ‘Two Cathedrals’
At the cusp of the golden era of television, The West Wing produced a candidate for the greatest episode of modern times. Where to start? Bartlet, a devout Catholic, walking through the Washington National Cathedral, swearing at god in Latin? The cliffhanger that was not a cliffhanger if you were paying attention? The astounding performance by Kirsten Nelson as a young Delores (Mrs Landingham, please)? ‘Two Cathedrals’ is the episode you keep back for when you really need it.