‘The West Wing’: The series that inspired a generation
What does it say about me that in the span of 24 hours two of my friends sent me the link to this Vanity Fair article about the inspirational idealism of ‘The West Wing’ that propelled so many of my generation into politics or political journalism? It says that everything in the article is accurate. And that my friends know my love and adoration for Aaron Sorkin’s political masterpiece.
I must preface this by stating that not only do I own the complete series boxset of ‘The West Wing’, but I have its patriotic theme song as a ringtone for several of my friends – the ones who also understand the show’s importance as a pop culture phenomenon and who don’t judge me when I end sentences with, “I learned that from ‘The West Wing’.” I also have an autographed Aaron Sorkin photo that is currently framed and hanging on my wall – a 24th birthday present from my father. To say that I worship at the alter of Aaron Sorkin is an understatement. To me, Sorkin sits next to Joss Whedon in the pantheon of greats.
But I will be the first to admit that when ‘The West Wing’ first aired, I was not immediately hooked like several of the men and women who were interviewed for the article. No, I took my time jumping on the bandwagon. When the show premiered in 1999 I was in the middle of a messy love affair with ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’. In fact, during that time my only interaction with the liberal political drama was when I would groan in annoyance at the Emmys when the show won another award. In other words: I was an idiot. But there’s a reason the phrase “better late than never” exists.
I was actually drawn into the world of ‘The West Wing’ after watching, in the span of a few short weeks, Sorkin’s other great show, “Sports Night’. It lasted only two seasons as Sorkin left the show to create the political drama. At first I was outraged that he would leave something so funny, so well written, but then I took a chance on ‘The West Wing’ and I never looked back.
The Vanity Fair article states that the show “made policy discussions seem thrilling and governing heroic” and it’s hard to argue with that logic. The show definitely romanticized politics, and it was definitely far more idealistic than the real world – and much more prolific – but it gave its viewers something to aspire to. The show took something that was “historically uncool” and made it popular and interesting by giving viewers a look at what goes on behind the scenes of their government.
Before the show I didn’t know what the chief of staff did. I knew the title, sure, but that was only because I’d heard it thrown around in the news and in history courses. But did I know what the person in that role did? Of course not. Before the show I had no idea the work that went on behind the scenes, and I’m sure I’m still sorely lacking in that area, but I have a much better understanding of my government and the role various members of the White House staff play in its the day-to-day operations.
Just like my generational counterparts interviewed for the Vanity Fair article, I found myself inspired by Sorkin’s idealistic version of politics. There have been several times when I’ve finished an episode and felt a deep urge to pack up my belongings and move to DC to become a part of something bigger than myself. The show makes people want to do something better with their lives, it makes people want to get involved in the decision making process that affects us all. Every time President Josiah ‘Jed’ Bartlet would give a speech, whether he was addressing his constituents or his personal staff, I was moved and inspired. On a conscious level I knew the words were written by a professional writer, I knew the situations were fictional, but subconsciously I realized that what I was doing with my life was never going to change the world – and that bothered me.
I saw all the ways I could have an impact on the world around me and I was doing nothing about them. I saw the possibility of what my talents could bring about. I saw the way these men and women worked day and night to ensure the rest of the country, and the world in some cases, was a better place. And there’s definitely something to be said about that. But I think it’s also important to remember that the show’s success was in large part because of the characters Sorkin created, characters who were well drawn and relateable, and who gave impressionable youths the role models they didn’t know they needed.
The show was full of characters who were well developed, well written and who had distinct voices. Sorkin and his writers may have romanticized politics, but they did so by giving voices to people most of the world never see.
The character of Claudia Jean ‘C.J.’ Cregg who began the show as the White House Press Secretary and ended it as the first female Chief of Staff – both in the show and in real U.S. government – is one of the most important female characters of the last 25 years, and a character who earned its portrayer, Allison Janney, four Emmy Awards. CJ is not just a role model for young women aspiring to be in politics, she’s a role model for all women. She’s got an inner strength and integrity that I can only dream of one day possessing. Her character, the lone female in the inner circle until Deputy National Security Advisor Kate Harper joined the series in season 5 (I’ll get to Donna Moss in a second), is inspirational in her ability to hold her own in a male-dominated work environment. And it is clear that her male counterparts not only respect her, but they value her opinion and look to her for guidance.
When the series ends CJ is offered any job she wants in the new Santos administration. Instead, she takes another offer to head a charitable organization because politics was never her driving force. CJ was driven by the desire to do something great, she was driven to help those who were unable to help themselves. CJ didn’t need to be in government to believe she could change the world, she just needed an outlet through which to channel her ideas. The power and presence of CJ Cregg is enough to inspire anyone to want to better themselves, and the world, by doing something selfless and working toward effecting change. I used to tell people, depsite the fact I was already an adult by the time I watched the series, “When I grow up I want to be like CJ Cregg.” Some people had no idea who I was talking about, and more is the pity for them, but those who knew the character completely understood why someone would look up to, and want to be, her.
Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman, brought to life by Bradley Whitford with a surprising depth of emotion, is a character fondly remembered for his comedic moments and his witty, sometimes arrogant, banter with the rest of the staff. But he is also remembered for his dedication to doing the right thing and for having the confidence to take risks in order to see those things come to fruition. In a political landscape that is riddled with controversy, lies, and backalley negotiating tactics, it was refreshing to see a character so high up in the organization who wasn’t jaded by his position. Josh viewed the world with a childlike wonder and optimism that showed he truly believed the government was an organization that could bring about a positive change, as long as he was the one who was making it happen. What could have been a character of pure comedic relief, Josh turned out to be one of the greatest forces of talent and emotion the show ever witnessed. You cannot be a fan of ‘The West Wing’ if Josh Lyman didn’t bring a tear to your eye as often as a he made you laugh. While it was clear that Josh had a little bit of a problem leaving the office and focusing on his own personal life, his dedication to his work is inspiring in itself. Josh made the leap from Deputy Chief of Staff during most of the Bartlet presidency, to the Chief of Staff for President Matt Santos after he effectively and successfully ran his presidential campaign. And if the world had more people like Josh Lyman running things behind the scenes, I think more people would be supportive of the role the government plays in our lives.
Sam Seaborn, played by the ridiculously handsome Rob Lowe, began the show as the Deputy Communications Director. Lowe left the show after the fourth season, written off in a way that was true to his character – he promised the widow of a man who died while running for a seat in Congress – and who posthumously won that election – that he would run for the seat in a special election of the California’s 47th district. He lost, of course, as he was a democrat running in the affluent area of southern California known as Orange County, but it was entirely in character for Sam. He was, by far, the most idealistic character on the show, which was both his greatest strength and his greatest flaw. Sam had been unhappily working as a lawyer in New York City when Josh showed up and urged him to join him in the world of politics, and it became clear over the course of the series that Sam was even more optimistic about the government’s ability to change the world for the better than even Josh was. As a very talented and effective speechwriter, Sam wrote several of Bartlet’s more powerful speeches, and thus was the main source of inspiration when it came to what I would like to do in politics. I am nowhere near as talented as Aaron Sorkin and his team of writers, but if I can do one thing in this world, it’s write ridiculously long articles about things most people have no desire to, and will never, read. If I do someday make the transition from blogging in Columbus, Ohio to writing for a nonprofit (as is my dream) or for a government agency in Washington, DC, I’ll have Sam Seaborne to thank.
One of my favorite quotes from the show, and one that accurately depicts how truly idealistic Sam’s view of the world is, is Sam’s stance on education reform:
Education is the silver bullet. Education is everything. We don’t need little changes. We need gigantic, monumental changes. Schools should be palaces. The competition for the best teachers should be fierce. They should be making six figure salaries. Schools should be incredibly expensive for government and absolutely free of charge to its citizens, just like national defense. That’s my position. I just haven’t figured out how to do it yet.
My favorite thing about the show was Sam’s reappearance in the final season. I always felt that Sam was a necessary piece to the Bartlet administration, and I know his character was written out as a request from Lowe, but I never thought Will Bailey, played by Joshua Malina (a Sorkin staple), truly filled the gaping hole left after Sam’s departure. Sam’s refusal to believe the world was anything but ripe with opportunities for change was an integral part of the show. Somehow knowing that he ended up as the Josh to Josh’s Leo made losing the show a little easier. A world where Josh and Sam are two of the most important people in the government is a world in which I would like to live.
Of the four original characters who worked behind the scenes at the White House, the last is Toby Ziegler. Toby was played by Richard Schiff, the only actor with whom I had no prior experience before ‘The West Wing’. He was one of the most, if not the most, complex character on the show. Schiff played the character with a subtlety that may have been overlooked if you didn’t pay close attention. Everything about Toby was very well orchestrated and planned down to the most intricate detail. Almost everything he did was subtle, from his humor to his carefully chosen words, but there was another side to Toby that Schiff played masterfully. It was constantly said by the other characters, specifically Toby’s ex-wife Andi, that Toby was “sad.” But that word doesn’t begin to accurately describe who Toby is. Toby is perhaps the most loyal character on the show, most obvious, perhaps, in the leak storyline of season seven in which he refused to give up his source, despite the threat of a second indictment that could derail the presidential election.
The leak storyline is one often dismissed by fans because it was out of character for Toby. Not one person who spent seven years watching this show would believe that Toby would leak classified information, even if it meant saving lives. Toby was loyal to the President, to Leo, to Josh and Sam, and to CJ. He was loyal to a fault. But he was also unafraid to challenge the President, or anyone else, when he felt they weren’t doing the right thing or taking the right course of action. He was steadfast in his ideals, and he placed a great deal of importance on integrity. While he wasn’t always as vocal about his political ideals, he was still dedicated to his job and to Bartlet’s message. But Schiff’s character is not one to be ignored simply because he didn’t shout his idealistic ideas from the windows of the White House. Almost everything Toby did was done with quiet careful planning. But if the only word that comes to mind when you think of Toby is sad, then you’ve misunderstood his entire character. In fact, there are several moments in which Toby displays happiness and humor, however understated and dry it might be. Toby was a quiet character who often watched the rest of coworkers, and I think that this show would have been entirely different, and lacking, without him.
Donna Moss was a character who was only supposed to be Josh’s assistant, a kind of secondary character who existed to put Josh in his place as much as answer his phone calls. But Janel Moloney had such chemistry with Bradley Whitford, and a screen presence that simply demanded more time, that Sorkin and Co. quickly realized her untapped potential and upped her to series regular. Donna had no real dreams or political ambitions when she landed the job of Josh’s assistant by pretending she’d already been hired for the job during the first Bartlet campaign. But Donna was impressed and inspired, like the men and women discussed in the Vanity Fair article, to join the cause, believing it her duty to work for the greater cause.
Donna is the show’s answer to the question, “What can you do when you have the opportunity?” She represents the American public and is the idea of the American dream – you can do anything, and be anything, you want when you set your mind to it – personified. She is perhaps the most inspirational of all the characters on the show as we see her work her way up from a tiny cubicle in Josh’s bullpen to the position of campaign spokesperson for Santos, a position that eventually leads to her being offered the job of Deputy White House Press Secretary, which she promptly turns down. Instead, Donna accepts Helen Santos’ offer of Chief of Staff of the First Lady, a job that not only gives her a large office with a door, but a position that demands respect and represents just how far she’s come since the earliest episodes of the series.
The same can be said for Charlie Young, the young man who applied for a job as a messenger and ended up as the personal aide to the president. He was forced to get a job in order to care for his younger sister after his mother, a police officer in DC, was killed in the line of duty. The role was played to perfection and with great maturity by Dulé Hill. He too was a character who was full of potential. He worked as President Bartlet’s bodyman until he was forced to make good on a promise he had made to the President that he would quit the job once he graduated from Georgetown. Upon leaving that post he realized he had no desire to leave the White House and was eventually offered a job by CJ, who had recently been appointed Chief of Staff as Leo had stepped down following his heart attack. Charlie spent the last two seasons as a special aide to the Chief of Staff and eventually enrolls in law school at Georgetown at the end of the series. Proving once again that the American dream is not always just a dream, that anyone can find direction and meaning in their life, even if it wasn’t what they had originally set out to do, Charlie is inspirational to young men and women everywhere. He is a perfect example that hard work and dedication can, and will, eventually lead to success.
It might seem weird to not discuss John Spencer’s Chief of Staff Leo McGarry, or Martin Sheen’s President Josiah ‘Jed’ Bartlet in an article about how ‘The West Wing’ inspired legions of my generation to get involved in politics, but I think the ways in which they were inspiring and influential to the young minds of today are obvious in the show itself. They often spoke their minds and were never shy about their ideals. They need no further explanation. And the show was never about them; the show was about the younger men and women who who made up the rest of the inner circle and how they changed the world. McGarry and Bartlet were the older parental like figures who shaped and guided the likes of CJ, Toby, Sam, Josh, Donna and Charlie, and how they groomed them to rule the free world, just the way their characters in turn shaped my generation.
I guess when you’ve watched ‘The West Wing’ as much as I have, it’s not hard to understand how it influenced my peers into following certain career paths. It isn’t hard to see why they would have been inspired by these characters and why they believed they could make a difference. I’m obviously guilty of the same thoughts, but have yet to fully realize their potential. I’m not worried that I’ve missed my chance though; I’m only 24, I still have time to make good on my dreams of becoming a writer for a non-profit organization dedicated to making the world a better place for future generations. And I guess that’s something else I’ve learned from ‘The West Wing’; it’s never too late to change the world and you’re never too small to have an impact.
Photo courtesy of NBC