Good government fantasies: Where have you gone, Jed Bartlet?


Sixty days into a turbulent presidency, I’ve found solace in re-runs.

The West Wing offers respite from chaos. Many nights, I shield myself from my phone— banishing Facebook and breaking news—then indulge in old odes to good government.

When the series premiered in 1999, after President Clinton’s ugly impeachment and acquittal, the show presented a reassuring portrait of White House staffers, who were passionate about politics and public service.

Some episodes help me sleep. Some make me gasp.

My mind replays an episode about secrets and truth, and what happens when a president misleads the public. In episode H. Con 172 (short for House Concurrent Resolution), speechwriter Sam Seaborn insists on rebutting a kiss-and-tell book written by a White House short-timer. His colleagues say it’s not worth fighting lies and half-truths. When the president asks why it matters so much, Sam shrugs and says, “I don’t think it’s a good idea to be casual about the truth.” I can’t imagine any White House staffers standing up to this president about truth.

In our era of fake news, watching The West Wing feels necessary. It’s one antidote to an administration where cynicism has supplanted hope.

The fast-talking, fast-walking show is sometimes sentimental, but doesn’t bury characters’ flaws. In various episodes, Congress censures President Jed Bartlet for concealing his multiple sclerosis; a Senate committee grills recovering alcoholic chief of staff Leo McGarry; frumpled communications chief Toby Ziegler is fired during an investigation into leaks.

These TV plots seem more credible than the surreal scenes unspooling from today’s West Wing.  The show has credibility. Former White House and D.C. doyens wrote and consulted on scripts. A 2002 documentary special blended episode snippets and interviews with Presidents Ford, Carter and Clinton, along with big-name staffers including Kissinger, Panetta, and Rove. Real-life and Hollywood reinforced similar themes about America’s most notable workplace.

The West Wing’s influence stretches far beyond the Beltway. Some viewers were inspired to become policy aides, like their favorite characters. During a 2016 reunion on The Today Show, actor Richard Schiff, who played Toby, recalled young Obama campaign aides saying, “You are the reason we are doing this today.”

The small screen drama even played a role in Broadway’s Mount Rushmore-sized blockbuster, Hamilton. Playwright and actor Lin-Manuel Miranda says Aaron Sorkin’s superlative writing stirred him, demonstrating that audiences would follow multifaceted plots about people in government. For Miranda’s final curtain call, Hamilton’s orchestra played The West Wing theme.

Miranda is the most famous Winger or Wingnut—fans’ self-described names—but he’s got company. Last year, The West Wing Weekly podcast debuted, and within months, the New York Times reported it had 2.5 million downloads. Launched by actor Joshua Malina, who played speechwriter Will Barnet, and composer Hrishikesh Hirway, the podcast deconstructs an episode each week with help from show alumni and policy pros. This year, Miranda crafted a rap homage for the podcast, riffing on President Bartlet’s expression, “What’s next?”

What's Next pinSo, what’s next for The West Wing? The podcast will be walking through 150-plus episodes until 2019. And thanks to Netflix, an 18-year-old drama about policy wonks still grabs new viewers, including those who weren’t born when the show premiered.

My 21-year-old son, Will, was in high school when he started watching. Will’s the reason I became a Winger. Last Christmas, we started from season one, episode one, each show followed with a podcast chaser. I’m still dosing myself with seven seasons of stellar storytelling that earned 26 Emmys and three Golden Globes.

In season four’s Twenty Hours in America pt. 2, Toby and Josh endlessly debate campaign tactics, then Toby closes with a Shakespearean monologue:

“If our job teaches us anything, it’s that we don’t know what the next president is going to face. If we choose someone with vision, someone with guts, someone with gravitas who’s connected to other people’s lives… then we’ll be able to face what comes our way, and achieve things that we can’t imagine …”

 Those earnest words sustain me. I need to hear that in some West Wing, some alternative reality, optimism still lives in the White House.

Wallowing in dreams of good government, I see beyond the bleakness and envision a brighter West Wing once again.


Author: katehavelin

Whether I'm walking trails or exploring favorite places from my home in Saint Paul to New York, Paris, or Hong Kong, travel keeps me moving forward through life. I've written two trail guides for adults and sixteen nonfiction books for young people, along with dozens of magazine articles and essays.

3 thoughts on “Good government fantasies: Where have you gone, Jed Bartlet?”

  1. Hello!I was way too young when the series first premiered.Now,I too am watching the series with so much admiration for the people there.It is very utopian and a promising array of characters who have a penchant for doing great public service. I am just midway in Season 2 and can’t wait to watch the series in its entirety.But I was able to relate to the feeling you mentioned.Thank you for accompanying your words with some facts and figures, I was unaware of them until now.

    Liked by 1 person

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