What ‘The West Wing’ Taught Us About The White House

There’s so much to delve into with The West Wing, whether we’re talking the treatment of women, the structure of scripts and storylines, the aesthetics of the show (sadly, lighting and sets were not its strong suits) and more, but one thing I’m particularly interested in is the message it sends about the White House, and politics — which was, after all, one of the core points of the show. You don’t make a show about a presidency without the goal of, er, political commentary. The West Wing was a fundamentally hopeful show, airing in an era when a lot of people didn’t have very much faith in politics and their leaders — the Bartlet Administration was pop culture’s answer to the Bush Administration, and it was easy to see which administration came out better.

In many ways, the show seemed oddly prescient — it ended with the election of the first Latino President, it included an attack eerily similar to that of the Gabby Giffords shooting, it dealt with rising tensions in the Middle East, it explored a threatened shooting on White House grounds, and it delved into the devastating effects of colonialism in Africa. But it also sent a very distinctive message about life inside the White House for the people who lived and worked there. This was a programme where almost every episode was a bottle episode, taking place entirely within the walled garden of the White House, which made for an intriguing and in-depth study of White House culture and the very building itself. After all, the show was named The West Wing for a reason.

Naturally, many of the specific protocols, security procedures, floorplans, and so forth for the White House in the real world are kept secure, for pretty obvious reasons. On a show with political consultants working to make it as authentic as possible, Sorkin and his team still had to fudge details in order to avoid security risks for the President and White House staffers in the outside world. These things are also largely mysterious secrets to the public because of the same security concerns, which makes it difficult for us to judge the authenticity of the show and the experiences depicted within — we have only flickers of knowledge and commentary to go on, rather than solid information.

That nebulousness around the world inside the White House makes shows like The West Wing so very important, because they aren’t just stories, but active narratives about an environment most of us will never enter. The White Houses we see on Scandal, in Madam Secretary, and on The West Wing matter because they’re about commentaries on politics and society, but also what we imagine the White House to be. It’s a political and cultural touchstone, a sacred artefact for society in the United States; a symbol distinctive and immediately recogniseable.

The West Wing presented a White House full of fundamentally good, earnest people working out of a surprisingly small environment to effect great change. It also very much collapsed hierarchies, out of necessity — you can’t overwhelm the screen with scores of assistants, secretaries, and support personnel. The slew of speechwriters in the real White House wouldn’t fit on the screen, and showing them would have diluted the close connection between Toby and Josh. C.J. and Carol had a tight dynamic because everything else in the Press Secretary’s office fell away.

Some of the likely most authentic relationships were those between high-ups and their personal secretaries (or body men, in the case of Charlie). The ties between high-profile figures and the people who enable every aspect of their daily lives are intense personal relationships that stretch over years and decades, with secretaries knowing not just the basics of a schedule and the preferences of the people they work for, but the intimate details of their lives — and it’s notable that, of course, both of the significant secretaries on The West Wing were women. Working as a secretary isn’t a ‘women’s job,’ nor are secretaries replacement mothers, and it’s demeaning to people in these demanding positions to flick it away like that — especially when we see Leo being sharp with Margaret, and Margaret herself depicted as rather ditzy.

This was also a White House where things seemed to happen very quickly, and the President had tremendous power. It’s a bleak thing to view now, when the President seems hamstrung by Congress and, to some extent, the judiciary, but it also raises some complicated questions. How much power should the president have in the first place? Do we want presidents as authoritative and at times autocratic as Bartlett? He forced through legislation and used executive orders and other tools to get what he wanted and many of us rooted for him because we liked his politics, but what if the show had been flipped, depicting a conservative administration?

Another aspect of The West Wing that really intrigued me was Barlett’s loyalty to his staffers. There’s the fantastic scene where he charges in to make sharp comments as Toby and Josh struggle with obviously antisemetic attacks during what’s supposed to be a friendly meeting. He brings Ainsley Hayes into the fold because he admires her. He spends much of the show standing up for his staffers, creating a tight network of people he loves and people who love him — those who worked diligently on his campaign and who fight to support his administration.

There’s a part of me that likes to imagine this is how the real White House is, with a president who ferociously supports staffers and creates a welcoming environment for all of them. But I wonder how true that is in the real world. How much support can a president afford to offer staffers, and when will a president force or allow a resignation in the interest of the greater good of the administration? Bartlett attempts to defend Leo when he’s determined to leave the White House as his drug addiction comes out — but would a real president do the same?

How much of The West Wing is naive hope depicting the White House as the kind of place where people stick together through thick and thin, and how much is reality?

Image: The White House, Brook Ward, Flickr