Both The Sopranos and Band of Brothers were HBO cable productions, and their collective impact might tend to persuade us that network television was left nowhere. But it’s a law of the arts that a stylistic innovation gets instantly everywhere, like heat or cold; and in fact, even while HBO was still thinking of Band of Brothers, it was a network, NBC, that took the new long-look format in an unexpected new direction, with The West Wing, created by Aaron Sorkin. The word “created” always looks excessive when it pops up among the titles on a screen, but in Sorkin’s case it fits. Working on his own, he could seldom do structure like an HBO team: he has a frat-house penchant for slapstick, and his idea of a climax can be a plaster ceiling falling on the hero’s head. But The West Wing had so much growth potential that there was very soon no question of his working alone. Though he did much of the writing (possibly too much for his health) there was a whole organization toiling to keep him on the racing line—I often lapse into motor sport terminology when thinking about his work, because his mind is so quick—and he was left free to exploit his best gift, which is for the most elaborately eloquent dialogue since the great days of Hollywood screwball comedy in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Postwar mental torpor tried to kill all that glittering rapidity, but Sorkin brought it back to its full glory, having realized that an extended television serial format would give it more room to hurtle. He would have liked to work that act of resurrection for the movies, and he tried: the pages of dialogue that he was forced to leave out of his script for The American President were what gave him his initial impulse for The West Wing. In The American President Annette Bening got only a few fleeting scenes to prove that she could talk like Rosalind Russell. In The West Wing, Allison Janney got hours on end to prove that she could talk like Rosalind Russell, Irene Dunne, Jean Arthur, and Katharine Hepburn all sharing the one table at the Brown Derby.
Before The West Wing started I had laughed at Janney as the sluttish mother in Drop Dead Gorgeous, noticed her gangly pathos in Primary Colors, and had put together a mental collection of cameos that added up to a favorable impression; but the impression was the merest hint of the display of virtuosity she would unfold as C. J. Cregg in The West Wing over the course of years, and could give not even a token of its depth. When Danny brings the wrong goldfish to C.J.’s office and gets himself kissed at long last, it is one of the great love scenes in the American hall of heroic imagery, and when she mourns for her demented father, and seethes against the policy of affirmative action—one of the liberal values she is employed to favor—that has played a part in bringing his life to ruin, it is, on its quiet and contained level, great tragedy. Throughout the show, she can deploy that range of emotion because she has been given room. After the show ended she retained her new prestige and was more in demand than she had ever been before it started, but she was back to doing cameos, and on the right night, with the right accidental click on the remote, you can see her swapping quips with Charlie Sheen in a rerun of Two and Half Men. Wrong generation of Sheen. She ought to be swapping them with Charlie’s father, and in our minds she still is.
Martin Sheen as President Bartlet brought such biting articulacy to his tightly argued humanist speeches in the first few shows that his role was enlarged, which gives you some idea of what a good actor he must be, because in real life, up to then, his political rhetoric functioned mainly as a means to register protest. Rather than climbing into the longest black limo in the White House motorcade, he could be more easily imagined being hoisted into the back of a police van during a demonstration. Similarly, as Allison Janney has charmingly explained to several journalists, she can’t really talk as well as that: sometimes she had to ask what the technical terms in a given speech actually meant. The show’s heroes and heroines are all given their stature by the words Sorkin gives them to say. It’s an elementary point that should need no emphasizing, but it needs to be hammered home or the show’s ranking as a creation might be placed too low. The principal Westwingers are all quick speakers, but they aren’t making their stuff up. The best of them seem to have realized that their main job is to make sure the urge to act doesn’t get in the way of the words. The late John Spencer, playing Bartlet’s chief of staff Leo McGarry, looked a bit old fashioned because he could sometimes be caught gritting his teeth when the speech he was delivering had already gritted.
On the page, a Sorkin speech already includes most of the timing required for its delivery. This remained true for the dialogue of The West Wing even after Sorkin left the show, having written, on his own, every episode of the first four seasons. From the fifth season onward, Sorkin, who was contending with the physical results of colliding with a dumper-load of mushrooms and cocaine, not only didn’t write any further episodes, he didn’t even watch them. But he had created a style, and his producer John Wells, as the new head man of the organization, took it from there.
The speeches that were handed to Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford) and Donna Moss (Janel Moloney)—pages and pages of dialogue that William Powell and Myrna Loy would have slain for—were good enough to turn them into Romeo and Juliet. For any viewer the age of me or my wife, the only problem about watching and listening to the slow-burning romance of Josh and Donna was the high speed of what they said, often during long walking talks down corridors. (Luckily we had two keen-eared daughters smart enough to translate it.) But none of the quick talk would have seemed in keeping if the president had spoken like Eisenhower or George Bush. The tone and the pace are set by Jed Bartlet, which makes The West Wing an exemplary use of the charismatic central hero, a phenomenon which some stories can do without, but without which this story would be dead.
Jed Bartlet is an intellectual president. Previously in the twentieth century, there had been scarcely one of these. Theodore Roosevelt read everything, including, unfortunately, too many books about eugenics; Woodrow Wilson perhaps rated as a thinker; but FDR, though there wasn’t much he couldn’t understand—he even understood the atomic bomb, when the idea was eventually brought to him—was notable for applying his powers of reason more to everyday political detail than to the sweep of history: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” is more an advertising slogan than a thought. Harry Truman, still the most underrated of the modern presidents, had considerable book-learning, but it is a secret now because it was a secret then: he found it expedient to make himself sound ordinary. LBJ’s intelligence was underrated because of his cornball manners; but he can hardly be thought of as one who lived by the light of reason. JFK’s reputation for mental scope was largely constructed by those around him: it was Richard Nixon who could play the piano, but JFK got credentials as a music lover because Jackie sat him down in public to listen to Pablo Casals. Lately, Barack Obama published at least one good book which he actually wrote, but his idea of profundity was to announce that a vote for him would stop the ocean rising. All those real-life presidents were smart, but even with their reputations rolled together they don’t add up to Jed Bartlet, who, in one of any number of illustrative scenes, gives us an account of exactly why developments in the cultivation of wheat present a decisive objection to Malthusian theories about imminent world starvation. President Bartlet started off as an economist at an exalted level, and has somehow managed to go on acquiring knowledge even while embroiled in the full time job of gaining political advancement. The only comparable presidential figure in American history is Lincoln, whose brilliance was confined to the English language. When Bartlet, after the accidental death of his beloved old secretary Mrs. Landingham, lingers in the church to unleash a defiant speech against God, he delivers it in Latin.
In other words, President Bartlet is really Aaron Sorkin himself, correctly intuiting that this is the way America, and indeed the whole free world, would like the occupant of the Oval Office to be: omniscient, energetic, an ethical giant, a poet king. The capacity to arouse a hankering for rule by royalty is probably built into the job, or anyway into the initial constitutional error which combined the administrative duties of the head of government with the symbolic duties of the head of state. In my lifetime I have seen only a few screen products in which actors imitate British royalty: Colin Firth played George VI in the battle against his own stammer; Helen Mirren played Elizabeth II overcoming her urge to seek seclusion in Balmoral after the Princess of Wales was killed; and Naomi Watts, Catherine Oxenburg, Serena Scott Thomas and several others all shared the task of helping to remind us that the Princess of Wales, in real life, was nothing like an actress. On the other hand, I have lost count of American screen treatments in which awe-stricken actors evoke the royal status of the president, or even of the vice president. I remember that Fredric March, in Seven Days in May, was a bit of a Bartlet when, armed with the wise constitutional provision by which an elected official is commander in chief of the armed forces, he stymied the usurpatory pretensions of Burt Lancaster as head of the Joint Chiefs. One thinks immediately of the West Wing scenes in which Bartlet, handicapped initially by his self-conscious awareness that he has seen no military service, makes a friend of head of the Joint Chiefs, Admiral Fitzwallace (John Amos), only to see him killed off in the Middle East convoy bombing which so nearly ends the life of Donna that Josh must fly to her hospital in Germany and once again, after what seems like a decade of unbearable delay, find himself not quite able to declare his love.
But one thinks of those scenes immediately only because The West Wing has taken the supremacy: it is our first frame of reference for thinking about the presidency. In PT 109 Cliff Robertson was on his way to the White House. So was Robert Redford in The Candidate: though he was only running for senator, why else would he have nixed his sideburns except to seek supreme office? In 1988 there was a marvelous TV serial Tanner, jointly concocted by Robert Altman and Garry Trudeau, with Michael Murphy as an overqualified, and therefore unsuccessful, Democrat nominee. (Tanner might even have been Sorkin’s direct inspiration for The West Wing, if it wasn’t the movie Thirteen Days.) And so it goes on, all the way to the whole cluster of recent movies in which Morgan Freeman is the president; to the movie The Contender, in which Joan Allen was going to be the vice president; and to the plethora of TV shows including Commander in Chief, in which Geena Davis is the president; Veep, in which Julia Louis-Dreyfus reduces the vice president’s political role to the farce which we all secretly think it is anyway; and Madame Secretary, in which Téa Leoni is secretary of state—minor royalty in her case, perhaps, but she looks the part, her lithe grace gaining in stature from not being chased by Jurassic raptors.
To look the part, even when the Terrorists have captured the White House and tied you to a railing down in the bunker while they murder your staff one by one so that you will give up the launch codes, you have to be classy, or know how to fake it. Martin Sheen is terrifically good at being classy: he can’t make himself tall, but he knows just how to make himself look as if he has a connoisseur’s respect for Yo Yo Ma’s cello playing; or, even more impressive, for the moral stature of the African leader (Zakes Mokae) who has come begging for help in his war against the AIDS virus that is laying waste to his country. Almost every episode of The West Wing has a scene that qualifies for the title of best scene in the whole show, but most Wingnuts will agree that nothing quite equals the scene in which Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff), pithily interpreting the technicalities for us as is his wont, explains just why the powerful drug companies are reluctant to hand over their antiviral product: the recipients will find it hard to self-administer, because the pills have to be taken at precise intervals. And why will that be a problem? Because nobody owns a watch. The pathos of the scene is made all the harder to forget because Schiff is so good at understatement. He just says the words. It’s the mark of the Bartlet administration to just say the words, and of course it’s the chief reason why the Bartlet administration is like nothing that has ever happened in real life, where everything that gets officially said has to be sold like a used car.
Above all, Bartlet’s administration, in at least one crucial respect, is nothing like Bill Clinton’s. There is no sex; except, early on, between Sam and the escort girl he saves from herself (yet another disarming performance from Lisa Edelstein); and not even Sam, strangely enough, tried to get it on with the token West Wing Republican Ainsley Hayes. But not so strange, because Emily Procter as Ainsley isn’t there to be desirable—she can be that in CSI Miami, to which she eventually migrated, fitting so well into the sensual landscape that she sealed the relationship with botox—she’s there to be a brilliant conservative antagonist for Bartlet’s cluster of brilliant liberals. Sorkin’s idea of a sexual encounter between adults is a protracted debate, usually with the female gaining the upper hand, like Beatrice talking scornful rings around Dante in Paradise. This rule isn’t broken even by Bartlet’s daughter Zoey (Elisabeth Moss) and his African American body-man Charlie Young (Dulé Hill), who are scarcely adults at all: they go to bed together, but it’s almost as if that kind of fooling around is something that adolescents do before they grow up and start reading philosophy. Danny and C.J. have already talked themselves into a state of mutual obsession long before the wrong goldfish incident inspires their first kiss. In Bartlet’s White House, from the sexual angle, nothing untoward will ever happen. In Bill Clinton’s White House, something untoward resoundingly did.
Seen from the angle of, say, the Elysée Palace, Bartlet’s White House might seem the more odd, because its ruling assumption is that the Bartlet marriage, though inevitably strained by the contest of two careers, is as secure as the house itself. In the world of fact, from FDR until now, roughly half of the American presidents have been unfaithful to their wives at some point, but in the world of fiction that possibility is seldom allowed to come up. The West Wing would have been a different show had it done so, and quite probably not a better one; although I can’t have been the only male viewer to have wondered, early on, whether the depiction of the first lady, as played by Stockard Channing, might not have been designed to set up the possibility of Bartlet as a philandering successor to FDR, if not to JFK. Registering understandable impatience with his marriage to the job, she seemed also to be registering impatience with the United States, the Constitution and the world itself. (I hasten to add that Stockard Channing, with her Ida Lupino imitation in the spoof movie The Big Bus, gave one of the great parodic performances. Unfortunately some of her subsequent work suggests that she might still be on the bus.) Still, a Jed Bartlet with a sexual secret would have been regarded as un-American, and would therefore have never reached the network. The only secret Jed Bartlet has is the comparatively slight business of being subject to a case of multiple sclerosis whose paralytic side effects might induce him to black out in the situation room and inadvertently launch a nuclear strike against the Chinese navy, or the Russian army, or some little thing like that. The hiding of a potentially debilitating disease is a precedent set by JFK that Bartlet is allowed to follow. The precedent that JFK set by smuggling Marilyn Monroe into the White House is not one that would interest Bartlet. He is interested in every field of human endeavor except that. Why, then, do we find him so intensely human?
Mainly because he pays for his superior gifts with high anxiety. Where the rest of us might have a nagging conscience, he has an aching sense of responsibility. He knows he is the best man for his job because he is the best qualified for analysis and decision; but he can’t be at ease in his role, because he knows history too well. Bartlet transcends the usual picture of the charismatic central figure because he shows at all times that he is not exercising irresponsible power. After his newly appointed personal physician is killed in the Middle East, he wants to level the whole area. He knows he can’t. He doesn’t want to accept advice about a “proportional response,” but he knows he must. He has the quarrel with his advisers, and with himself, right there in front of us: in which lies the drama. Sorkin is inspiringly good at giving us a father figure and then proving that the father figure has, if not precisely feet of clay, then certainly a mind that suffers. In The West Wing the purity of language is unreal: network rules prevail and we never hear a dirty word. Nor does anyone, not even a writer, ever really talk that well. But there is realism about the way reasoned conclusions are reached.
In that regard, the most advanced stroke of realism in the show is the way that not even the brilliant Bartlet can function without hearing other voices. Those of us who hanker for a father figure should remember that if he existed then he would need a father figure too. Though Bartlet is a mighty chess player, The West Wing is a pretty good shot at fighting off the romanticism by which the central guru can understand the whole board at a glance. In I, Claudius Augustus sometimes didn’t know what was really going on, but he didn’t know that he didn’t know. Bartlet incarnates Camus’s definition of democracy as the system built and maintained by those who know that they don’t know everything. Romantic longings will always tempt us to reject that principle, especially when it comes to the business of admiring a screen hero. Playing Julius Caesar in the TV series Rome, Ciarán Hinds was fully as good as Rex Harrison in Cleopatra at being the smartest emperor ever. The consequence, alas, was the same in both cases: when Rex Harrison’s Caesar got assassinated, it left us with nothing but Burton and Taylor very believably being fatally bad for each other, and when Ciarán Hinds departed from Rome, so did the center of interest. It is almost impossible to portray a political hero without romanticizing him. In The West Wing Aaron Sorkin came close to managing it, making a questioning, troubled intellect seem a desirable quality for a politician to have, even in an era where the sound bite had come to power. (In The West Wing there are not yet any tweets, but the blogs are already coarsening the language of politics.) With its probing, dialectical treatment of every liberal issue, including race—one thinks with special fondness of Edward James Olmos as Justice Roberto Mendoza, Bartlet’s Latino nominee for the Supreme Court—The West Wing reminded the world that America had intellectual capacity behind its economic muscle, and surely helped prepare the way for Barack Obama’s election. If Sorkin had gone on to do a show about the first Jewish president, he might have changed history; but he had other projects in mind.
From Play All: A Bingewatcher’s Notebook by Clive James; published by Yale University Press in 2017. Reproduced by permission.
Clive James is an Australian memoirist, poet, translator, critic, and broadcaster who has written more than thirty books of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. He lives in Cambridge, UK.