The West Wing
Literature lovers are ‘well-read’. Film experts are ‘cineastes’. TV fans are ‘addicts’ – unless they happen to watch The West Wing, the celebrated drama about the machinations of the White House, to which a new leader is elected on More4 next week.
In the era of George W Bush, Josiah Bartlett, Nobel Prize-winning economist and multi-linguist, makes an unlikely president. But The West Wing was never meant to imitate the real. In fact, the real was always more likely to imitate it. In February, commentators claimed that the tactics adopted by the Conservative Party to stymie the religious hatred bill were inspired by a Bartlett stratagem, which is as good an homage to a fictional presidency as one could imagine.
The British tend to be satirical about their political process. When a right-on public worried about the excesses of Thatcherism, Yes, Prime Minister reassured them that the civil service would maintain the status quo. The Blair government, oft-considered to be using bad means to justify bad ends, is beholden to a misfiring PR machine in The Thick Of It. But when an American nation built on a vision worries about the morals or acuity of its leaders, its citizens would rather dream of politicians who are as virtuous in the bedroom as they are responsible in the Oval Office.
Bartlett even took his faith seriously, entering that office quoting the Bible. It became more serious, in a different way, when his secretary died in a car crash. At this point his ‘righteous’ anger turned on the Almighty: ‘Am I really to believe that these are the acts of a loving God? A just God? A wise God? I was your servant here on Earth. And I spread your word and I did your work. To hell with your punishments!’ All in Latin, of course. The Almighty, as if convinced, finds a replacement whose redemption hints at a God dealing maternally with a child’s tantrum.
The show’s main flaw was always its left-wing-good, right-wing-bad premise. Bush too sees himself as God’s servant on earth. And, like Bartlett, he kicks out those religious lobbyists whose conviction does not chime with his own. The West Wing earned plaudits for its compelling story about earthly power: one voice justifying its own abilities or ignoring the others. Eloquent though that may be, we have a different story about heavenly power: one voice asking ‘Who do you say that I am?’
(editor of Third Way magazine)
Simon Jones is editor of Third Way magazine. Visit him at thirdway.org.uk.
For a digestible West-Wing overview, visit the ever-helpful Wikipedia, at en.wikipedia.org.
'Blair's Whips Fooled By West Wing Plot' – read how the Tories drew inspiration from the West Wing to defeat the Government's Race and Religious Hatred Bill in the Daily Telegraph – telegraph.co.uk.
Visit the official West Wing website at www.nbc.com/The_West_Wing.
Read Eric Miller's article in Christianity Today about the episode in which Bartlett rails against God, as mentioned above – at christianitytoday.com.
Learn more about The Thick Of It at bbc.co.uk.