President Jed Bartlet, you were just too good for us.
It has long been known that liberals hold the television show The West Wing in a high esteem that feeds into their fantasies, especially in times where cold reality has not exactly gone as they (and creator Aaron Sorkin) would have hoped. And this fantasy will only be intensified since this is the twentieth anniversary of the show's premiere. Another reason for liberals to fantasize ever more deeply in the parallel liberal world of The West Wing is obviously due to the the one they consider to be the intruder in the real world West Wing, President Donald Trump.
The September 20 Vanity Fair article by Sonya Saraiya, "How The West Wing Briefly Made Democrats Into TV Winners," reveals how liberals continue looking upon that show as a source of solace over the years and especially now in the midst of the Trumpocalypse.
Aaron Sorkin’s political drama, which premiered 20 years ago this week, channeled the pious left’s frustration with Bill Clinton’s philandering, which had jeopardized his office and the standing of his party. In his place, Sorkin concocted an intellectual’s fantasy of the perfect liberal president: a former professor, father and grandfather, devoted to his wife, Nobel laureate and sports aficionado, quotes Shakespeare and the Bible with equivalent ease, almost never loses his temper, and is pretty much always right about everything. That was Jed Bartlet, the former Governor of New Hampshire, played by the ever dignified (and politically like-minded) Martin Sheen, who had also been featured in Sorkin’s previous Clinton-era presidential fantasy, The American President.
Reality check. What bothered the left about Bill Clinton really wasn't his philandering, but his few attempts at moderation, at least for public consumption, such as when he declared the "Era of big government is over," which was mocked in an episode of The West Wing.
Most of all, everyone cared: That was the joy of The West Wing. It wasn’t a White House crammed with cynical operatives or smarmy opportunists; it was an administration of patriotic, high-minded bureaucrats who were obsessed with their ability to do good. It made The West Wing a political show via the public service sentiment of a show like ER — characters worked early mornings, late nights, slept in their offices, and came in on the weekends, all in the efforts of trying to govern the greatest country in the world. When George W. Bush was elected, in the show’s second season, the show became a concurrent liberal fantasy of competence, intellectualism, and social justice in power.
Yup! Definitely a liberal fantasy especially for times when a Democrat was not in the White House. And especially now, with You-Know-Who in the Oval Office, liberals need the alternate reality more than ever.
If there ever were a show that was trying to be the prestige-drama-option version of the Democratic Party, it is The West Wing. But that vision is two decades old, and even at the time, it couldn’t keep up with how rapidly the political universe around it was changing. If the show’s better-angels idealism was already a little creaky by the time it went off the air, it’s positively antique in our current era of tweetstorms, Russian bots, and pro-wrestling memes. The biggest problem with the legacy of the The West Wing is not about the show—it’s that 20 years later, Democrats haven’t found a better way to win elections. When they go low, Democrats still go high-minded.
So what’s the TV template for battling Trump’s addictive media cycle? I’m not sure. Maybe Trump’s too skilled at manipulating the semiotics of television to be combated onscreen.
And one of the perpetrators of this legacy is Vanity Fair itself. Just after the November 2016 election they actually published an article titled, "10 West Wing Quotes to Help Cope with Election Depression." It is unknown if they will resurrect that article again after the 2020 election.