So, I wonder: do liberals watch The West Wing longingly, thinking about what might have been? There they are: a liberal academic president from the North East, his beautiful, intelligent, liberal staff, struggling to solve the nation’s and the world’s problems in a socially conscientious liberal (and funny) way. On occasion they give voice to conservative viewpoints, and sometimes they’re given serious consideration (it would be easy to just mock those you disagree with all the time). Ainsley Hayes, the republican lawyer who ends up working for the president because “the president likes to surround himself with brilliant people who disagree with him,” was a great television invention—an antagonistic chorus who was smart and funny at the same time. But for the most part it’s all about liberal truths. So do liberals, after getting trounced in the last election, watch The West Wing every week and scream “This! This is the way it’s supposed to be!”
I like to tell myself that I watch it because it is the best written and best acted show on broadcast television, though Desperate Housewives is giving it a run for its money. Both Desperate Housewives and The West Wing are soap operas, and like other great prime-time soap operas—Dallas, Dynasty, the Sopranos—the are clever, witty, and addictive. But might not watching The West Wing be a little bit masturbatory for liberals, a fantasy of the way we want our world to work, which we cling to because the world has really gone all to hell and, just as we are not sleeping with Heather Graham no matter who much we’d like to be, we are stuck with George W. Bush for another four years?
I was watching re-runs of The West Wing yesterday. My girlfriend watches Law and Order (subject of a blog yet to be written) I watch The West Wing. I love it. I want my life to be that clever, that much fun and have that much meaning at the same time. Jeb Bartlet is the finest president we could ever hope for. Too bad he’s not real, and that the script writers are all liberals who make sure his ideas are always the ones that prove to be best. The show’s Jiminy Cricket, Toby Ziegler, spouts off beautifully concise explanations of the liberal position—much more beautiful and concise then John Kerry seemed to manage. President Bartlet eloquently probes all sides of a complex issue and, with a reluctance born only from the knowledge that you control the fates of millions, sets the nation’s course. They fight a hostile congress which launches frivolous investigations of them, they champion gun control and abortion and the environment and women’s rights and gay rights and give out clear, well reasoned and logical explanations as to why they do so—something the DNC is completely lost in attempting. Not only that but their reasoning makes both practical and moral sense. When Toby says “Free trade stops war,” or “FDR took ninety days to build the American Middle Class,” or C.J. cries out “They’re beating the women,” or the President says, hell anything, laced as it will be with references to Shakespeare and Cicero and Lincoln, to explain why the world works the way it does, you have to ask yourself, how can anyone not want to be a liberal. Of course, it’s just a show. The real world doesn’t work that way, does it?
I’ve thought for a long time that the soul of The West Wing is a lot of liberal wishful thinking, but I got a clear example this weekend watching two episodes that I had seen before, and one that I had not. In the first two, Toby tells the president that it is ok the be smart, that his opponent in the general election, Governor Richie from Florida, is folksy and home spun and a regular guy “good for all time zones,” and that the president shouldn’t try to bet him on those grounds. The president is smart, he’s competent, he’s genuine, he’s a Nobel laureate and he shouldn’t pretend not to be. The republicans are going to spin it as real American values versus the North East liberal elite and he, President Bartlett, should let them, because it plays to his strengths. In the second President Bartlett meets with Governor Richie, played by James Brolin in a not very good caricature of George W. Bush, at a production of Henry VI. Richie makes a point of going to a Yankee game instead because “that’s how ordinary Americans get their entertainment.” Bartlett tells Richie he doesn’t have to be so detached, that the country would be served by them having a great debate about the issues of our times, not by throwing sound bites and negative adds at one another. While Bartlett is conciliatory Richie tells the president that he’s a North Easterner, a liberal, an academic, a snob, and that he’s weak, and that for all those reasons Governor Richie doesn’t like him. This is certainly how Red State America feels about me and mine.
The capper here is that in the big confrontation, written two years before the last election, they have a debate (another episode, which I had already seen). As to be expected, Bartlett’s camp wants as many debates as possible, Richie’s camp wants as few as possible, but to get Richie to agree on the format and issues they want to discuss, Bartlett’s people throw a curve ball by proposing only one debate. Bartlett tears Richie apart. He makes him look foolish, ignorant, petty and mean, while making himself look completely presidential. Where he was trailing in the polls going into the debate he comes out way ahead in the polls and wins in a landslide.
Now imagine if John Kerry and George W. Bush had had only one debate. Kerry, the North East liberal elitist snob, made George W. Bush look foolish, ignorant, petty and mean. Pat Buchanan said that if the election had been held after the first debate Kerry would have won. Imagine that.
Democrats are looking at the rich, smart liberal catholic from New England on TV and saying why couldn’t the real rich, smart, liberal catholic from New England win? Hell, he even had some of the West Wing TV writers on his speech writing staff (a great example of the blending of politics and entertainment). Well, the reason is because TV is not the real world, and because Karl Rove is a genius, because George Bush is smarter and more competent then liberals ever want to give him credit for being, and because sometimes the world just doesn’t work the way it should. You pray you could make those red state people understand how wrong they are, but they are out there praying for you as well.
And they won.
Yep, The West Wing is how blue staters see the world. For the red state view watch Jag.