What I’m learning in my West Wing rewatch

On the first of the year, I started rewatching The West Wing, in keeping with the fact that this is an election year, and I thought it might be intriguing to watch the show to see if it held up, after being off the air so long. Now, that rewatch is drawing to a close — yes, I timed it with the California primary — but you can read my entries about it on my Tumblr. I’m not going to rehash the fine details of the show here — feel free to meander through my Tumblr archives if you want discussions of every single episode — but there’s a broader takeaway that I’ve been turning over in my head.

For a certain generation, The West Wing is really a pop culture touchstone, and I’m a member of that generation. I remember watching it while it was airing, feeling it as the counterpoint to a political regime that felt really broken and troubling. Much of the show took place over the course of the Bush years, and President Bartlet was a striking counterpoint to the conservative, warmongering, destructive Bush Administration. While President Bush was riding the economy into the ground, Bartlet was pushing for peace accords. While Bush was condoning torture and other abuses, Bartlet was agonising over the decision to assassinate a foreign leader at the head of a corrupt, abusive government (not, I think, one of Bartlet’s finest hours, to be frank). While Bush was fiddling, Bartlet was doing things.

I grew up with an incredible sense of idealism about politics — when we lived in the United States, our house was the polling place for many years, something I know I’ve written about ad nauseum, but it’s because it played such an important role in my life. It meant a lot to me to see people coming to vote, to make a huge spaghetti dinner at the end of the day, to listen to election results slowly trickling in over the course of the day. Presidential elections in particular were my favourites, representing a chance for critical, radical change, and Bush was elected while I was in college, all of us slumping in bitter disappointment when the Supreme Court handed him the presidency.

That was a moment of real disillusionment for me, one of the turning points that pulled me away from a planned career in politics and into other things. At the same time, The West Wing was rising to fill a void, imagining a different world, a different presidency, and I was swept into it.

There are a lot of problems with The West Wing, as anyone speaking honestly about the show should be able to admit. There was a fair amount of sexism, it made a lot of trip-ups with respect to race, and it struggled with other issues. No pop culture is perfect. But at the same time, it did some radical and amazing things. It projected ideas about what a presidency could be and how the tools of the White House could be used if people were ready to occupy it with integrity. Bartlet pushed through unimaginable things during his time in the Oval office. Those things stood in sharp contrast to what was actually happening in the Oval. And, of course, The West Wing successfully elected a Latino president shortly before the United States elected a Black president.

There’s a lot of talk of The West Wing being predictive, and the running joke that ‘there’s a West Wing episode for everything,’ one I tend to crack even more this year because the show is so much on my mind. But at multiple times over the last few months, I really have thought ‘oh, this reminds me of that West Wing episode when…’ as I watched a Supreme Court justice die, a series of primaries battle themselves out, Republicans toss around the idea of a brokered convention. These were all things I connected with through the show, not just as someone living in the United States and participating very directly in the political systems.

So does the show hold up, all these years later? Honestly, yes. The last episode aired a little over 10 years ago, on 14 May, 2006. Ten years later, the technology and costumes certainly feel a bit clunky, but the level of predictive commentary is incredible, from concerns about opening tech backdoors and compromising on privacy to battles over finding a Supreme Court justice who will satisfy conservatives and liberals alike without compromising and ending up with a tepid moderate.

Politics has always felt very circular, but The West Wing highlights that, reminding me that people were undertaking the same battles in 1996, 1986, and further on back. Change happens so incrementally that it’s hard to identify over a ten year period, and this is perhaps an important lesson for viewers. I’m interested to see how Scandal will perform over the course of a decade, in the same spirit of pop culture and television consumption (I would note that Scandal carries its own West Wing notes). We see these big, dramatic sea changes in US politics, but we don’t talk about how they were created through a quiet, steady series of nudges and pushes to set up the final moment.

Life in the bowels of politics isn’t a very pretty place, and a lot of the work of people who enable social change goes unnoticed and unappreciated, while public figures get to bask in the glory. The West Wing was a celebration of those people and the small daily work that they do, and I like to think that it cultivated greater respect for them, and a greater awareness that so much is happening behind the scenes to enable dramatic cultural shifts.

Image: White House, Hannah Rosen, Flickr