In the latest issue of the American Prospect (subscription), Ezra Klein has a piece saying “good riddance” to NBC’s West Wing. I share the sentiment, if for different reasons than Klein outlines. His complaint is that the show was too nice to Republicans. Mine is that it was too nice to both parties — and to politics as a whole.
Has there ever been a sweller bunch of folks than Toby, Sam, Donna, Josh and C.J.? A more selfless, high-minded, public-spirited, fundamentally decent pack of, er, political operators? Where in the world did Aaron Sorkin get his ideas about how politics works?
The White House of the West Wing exists in a Bizarro-world where the Oval Office is apparently devoid of office politics. We see almost none of the infighting, backstabbing, and jockeying for position that appear in real-world accounts of White House life. And no one, it seems, is tempted to abuse power. Can you picture a young John Dean in the Bartlett White House, rubbing his hands together at the prospect of “using the available federal machinery to screw our political enemies?” A young Bill Moyers demanding that J. Edgar Hoover find homosexuals on Barry Goldwater’s campaign staff? Could even a Dick Morris or a David Addington walk the halls with saintly C.J. and noble Toby? Not likely.
It’s not that every White House staffer should be played as Gollum-with-a-briefcase. But the West Wing writers wouldn’t even entertain the possibility that anybody gets corrupted by proximity to power.
And then there’s Martin Sheen’s President Bartlett. He’s some sort of Catholic theologian-cum-Nobel-laureate in economics — you know, the sort of guy we usually get for the job. And of course, he’s unbearably decent as well. Even his scandals are noble; no thong-snapping involved. Instead, Bartlett gets diagnosed with MS and chooses not to reveal it to the American people. This is Clinton, plus a spine and a moral compass, minus the libido. It’s Kennedy’s Camelot without the mob connections and the dirty tricks and the Motley-Crue-on-world-tour sex life.
The West Wing was, above all, a Valentine to power. And despite the snappy repartee and the often-witty scripts, it was a profoundly silly show. It managed — in 21st century America — to be markedly less cynical than Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
And that was by design: Sorkin and the show’s other writers and producers repeatedly spoke of their desire to renew “respect for public service” and to combat a culture of cynicism about politics. But is that really a pressing problem in modern American life? Are we too cynical about politics these days? Or not cynical enough?