I Serve at the Pleasure of the President – The Alternative Liberal Reality of The West Wing

During the Christmas period, whilst staying at a remote retreat in Northern Thailand, my wife and I have spent our quiet evenings watching the first season of The West Wing. This is a series that I chose not to watch when it was initially aired in the UK during the early 2000’s. Looking back now, I think my reluctance to watch the series was largely built on a misunderstanding of what The West Wing was. I think at the time I had imagined that it was either an attempt at an accurate portrayal of what was happening in US politics at the time, both in the immediate time prior to 9/11 and its aftermath, or as a kind of sharp satire on the goings on in Capitol Hill. However, it is neither of these things. Both possibilities were unappealing to me at the time, either because I couldn’t stomach a “fictional” reconstruction of US politics of the day, or couldn’t imagine enjoying a networked attempt at satirising what I thought at the time was beyond satire and parody. As I say, I couldn’t have been more wrong.

What is clear now, having watched most of series one, is that The West Wing is actually much more interesting than either of these alternatives. It is in fact a completely bizarre liberal fantasy world. What The West Wing offers is a total and absolute sealed fantasy world, a liberal fairy tale of US presidential politics. It is like a Freudian wish-fulfilling dream, offered as an alternative palliative to liberals haunted at every waking moment by the Real of US politics under the Republicans of Bush, Rumsfeld, Cheney, etc. At a time of rampant electoral cynicism, aggressive neo-conservatism, agendas driven by the Christian born-agains, grotesque domestic and foreign policy decisions, the harshest edges of laissez-faire economics since Reagan, The West Wing firmly occupies the territory of the fantastic, positing as it does a White House peopled by a “family” of the good, the committed, the sincere, the caring, the well-meaning, the idealisitic, and the brilliant. This is a United States with an intact history that resembles the real, up to a point. So the Constitution and its Amendments are identical, slavery and the Civil War happened, racial and ethnic prejudice and hatred exists, poverty and extreme wealth exist, Watergate happened, in fact everything seems to be the same apart from the fact that a Democrat occupies the White House when in reality a Republican in the shape of Bush Jr did. However, it is not the only swerve from fact, given that this simple fantasised difference is the springboard for the creation of an entirely fabricated vision of US politics, a dreamlike fabric without egress peopled by a family of Democrats that resemble The Waltons more than anything else.

The President, played brilliantly by Martin Sheen, is a intellectual Democrat with a PhD and a Nobel Prize in Economics, a modern post-Feminist, post-CivilRights, man for the new millennium, slightly confused and abstracted by modernity, politically insecure, uncomfortable with his masculinity, yet still an idealistic figure (struggling with his alternating roles of husband and father, Father of the Nation, and father to this family of political handmaidens). In differing ways he provides a paternal role to his own nineteen year-old daughter, his brilliant-but-flawed Chief of Staff (cue a history of drink and drug problems and a marriage breakdown), his young and newly appointed African-American manservant (whose policewoman mother has been tragically shot dead whilst on duty), and a whole range of Ivy League educated, smart-talking, worldy-wise (and mainly male) political staff, all John-Boy types, who gravitate from fevered energetic idealism to (fleeting) moments of depressed ennui and back again. Added to that are a whole range of circulating mother, and grandmother, figures who provide physical and emotional support, the occasional chastisement and female wisdom, ranging from his own wife, a medical doctor, his own ageing and wise secretary, the astute press secretary CJ, and the hired political advisor (by far the weakest character in the show). A tight-knit family of staffers all serving “at the pleasure of the president”. They work hard to protect father’s image (which under constant threat and under constant attack), whilst promoting a whole liberal christmas list of “the right things” – electoral finance reform, hate-crime reform, drug sentencing reform, public education reform, gays in the military reform, on and on. The ‘good’ and the ‘right’ are not only a constant presence in this re-imagined White House (at a time when it was part of the popular imagination to envisage, in reality, their almost complete absence), they are shown to, more often than not, to prevail. They prevail amidst opposition from right-wing Republican ideologues, cardboard religious moralisers, stiff military tightasses, and duplicitous smug Democrats, because of the sheer commitment, sincerity, and brilliant oratory of the President’s team.

We have stories of the President and his team dealing with (potentially nuclear) conflict in the Far East (India invades the disputed territory of Kashmir, provoking a conflict with Pakistan) by hilariously shipping in a former English diplomat and aristocrat who seriously looks like he must have served under the Raj. This is an imaginary United States that appears, for once, to recognise its cluelessness when understanding and resolving conflict in far off oriental lands are concerned, but the fantasy involves bringing in an anachronistic representative of the former colonial power (Lord Marbury) to offer them advice and sort it all out. Meanwhile, the Indian and Pakistani ambassadors are portrayed as intransigent adolescents hell-bent on mutual destruction. The English aristocratic diplomat is shown as being full of the kind of impossible world-weary and sophisticated political nous, and real-politick, that this young idealistic US government lacks. He demonstrates all of the wisdom that comes from having tried (presumably failed) to administer this religious miasma under the Raj. It will be interesting to see how this show re-imagines the British Prime Minister at a time when Blair and New Labour inhabited Downing Street. I wonder if they will have a blend of John Cleese, Terry Thomas and Stephen Fry in a Bowler Hat. This is one of the strangest stories in the show so far.

Or the story involving the Black Civil rights lawyer who is about to be nominated to the President’s civil rights committee and is revealed to have made a statement in support of monetary slave reparations (to the tune of 1.3 trillion dollars) – cue deep political crisis (every episode involves some kind of crisis): those damned Republicans aren’t going to agree to that! This leads to a long and protracted hand-wringing debate about the wrongs of slavery, reparation and morality in the office of one of the President’s men, where the principle escapes unscathed, but its realisation lodged into the fabric of a ‘brighter and better future’. Like a Harvard-debating club presided over by chaste liberal priests. A ludicrous scenario. Ludicrous because one can never imagine any circumstances in which this scenario would (or could) ever happen in any kind of real White House, particularly the one that existed when this was being made. But we are in a dream. And this dream is impossibly nice.

All of this dreaming occurs beneath the thinnest veil of a sharp script packed full of wisecracking, world-weary cynicism and explicit political manoeuvring (the gnomic cynic figure of Toby is a classic disillusioned idealist, who isn’t really disillusioned at all. It’s all for show). However, this is the biggest red herring in the entire show. As fantasy it dabbles and flirts with the exterior affects of real politics that its audience might well either recognise or at least expect from its political classes. But beneath this thinnest of cynical shells beats the collective throbbing of the middle-class liberal heart inhabiting a cosy dreamland – swollen with sincere idealism about ‘making a difference’, ‘bringing about change’, ‘doing the right thing’, ‘doing what has to be done.’ In fact, this is a show that not only resembles The Waltons, but also another long-running US TV show – MASH. Like MASH, it unfolds as a wisecracking dream alternative to the nightmare of reality. However, unlike the comedy world of MASH, where the real horror of the war happening away from the field hospital would repeatedly arrive each episode via helicopter in the form of horribly injured soldiers, reality never really appears in The West Wing. Instead we have political crises only serving to demonstrate and cement the indestructible political idealism, sincerity and goodness that always prevails. It is an attempt to divorce the perfect liberal dream from nasty reality, to create a separate liberal world. It looks like our recognisable real world, but it isn’t. There never was (or will be) a world like this, but it is a highly enjoyable creation nonetheless.


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