April 5, 2004

Jed Bartlet for president

By: Ilya Shapiro

I admit it: I love The West Wing. Not the real one–haven’t been there yet–but the television show that was supposed to go downhill once creator Aaron Sorkin left. I love the fast walking, the frenetic pace, the in-your-face cinematography, the witty repartee between Josh and Donna, Toby and C.J., Leo and Will. I love the practical idealism, to borrow Al Gore’s term (never thought I’d ever write that). Most of all, I love the passion of President Josiah “Jed” Bartlet, who always seems to reach the right balance between his and the nation’s short- and long-term interests.

I can do without the ultra-liberal bent openly infused throughout the show and its fictional executive branch–but even that is refreshing to see on network TV, which usually pretends that it is nothing if not objective and ideologically neutral. Paradoxically, the obviousness of the bias allows the viewer more easily to transcend politics and enjoy the aforementioned good writing and acting. Moreover, I’m not sure what would be gained by a similarly sympathetic portrayal of a Republican presidency–other than perhaps coming away sated ideologically as well as aesthetically–were there a moderate’s chance in Democratic primaries of Hollywood ever producing such a thing. And it’s nice to suspend disbelief for one hour a week and travel to a place where government action never has unintended consequences, where the poor can be helped simply by an increase in empathy, and where racism is the biggest problem facing minorities in this country.

No, my bigger concern is in how to transfer all the warm fuzzies I get from watching my favorite show to the real world: How do we go about electing a real Jed Bartlet?

To begin, let’s identify the characteristics of this utopian commander-in-chief. For those unfamiliar with The West Wing, Bartlet, ably played by Martin Sheen, is a former governor of New Hampshire and Nobel laureate in economics who entered the White House as a sort of “Clinton with class.” He surrounds himself with the best and the brightest (who are all altruistically devoted to him and to the cause), does battle with opposition ideologues, agonizes deeply over ethical dilemmas, and ultimately gets his way because history, justice, and brute logic are on his side–all the while finding time to give soliloquies on the Founding era or social organization in far-flung lands. He is articulate, erudite, and engaged in all debates of policy and political philosophy, but also runs his shop with punctuality, respect, and élan.

In other words, Jed Bartlet, when you filter out the political orientation and partisanship, is a combination of the most worthy traits of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush–and of every other president. He is Kennedy with gravitas and Reagan with an intellectual background, not to mention Jefferson without whatever it is that so concerns his critics and Lincoln without… well, he pretty much is a modern Lincoln, replete with the belief that the might and majesty of the federal government must be used to right every wrong in the land–whether that be slavery or any restriction on abortion.

Well, OK, the blatant disregard of this country’s federalism is a flaw of Bartlet’s political character–though Hollywood can be excused given how even Republicans have lately not been good federalists (e.g., the nationalization of education, a Federal Marriage Amendment that goes beyond DOMA)–but the man is pretty much the presidential ideal, an American Politics 101 fantasy.

Indeed, the Bartlet administration is so much of a fantasy that it has encountered the following scenarios in the last few episodes alone: an ultra-liberal president having a sudden epiphany on vouchers in D.C. education (because his black aide tells him he would’ve loved the chance to go to a good school); the Democrats on the Judiciary Committee agreeing to appoint a Scalia clone to the Supreme Court in exchange for the concurrent appointment of a NARAL poster-child (because ideological moderation is bad for posterity); powerful Senators from both parties get together to fix Social Security, including raising the retirement age, partial privatization, and increased payroll deductions (because something had to be done).

C’mon–as if Democrats don’t know that black parents overwhelmingly favor school choice and weren’t in the pockets of the teachers’ unions, or Chuck Schumer was concerned about merit and boldness when he broke Miguel Estrada’s nomination, or anyone hinting at reforming Social Security wouldn’t be gang-demagogued by the phalanx of (non-special) interest groups now in hock with John François Kerry. I suppose the West Wing producers are making the point that, just as only a proven anti-Communist like Nixon could go to China, only someone with unparalleled liberal credentials can implement the few conservative (actually libertarian) policies that (somehow) make sense. Still, if, as Vaclav Havel says, politics is the art of the impossible, then The West Wing, despite Jed Bartlet’s enormous talents, shows precisely that which is impossible in politics.

Granted, I have my own biases which make a Jed Bartlet type of president appealing: having studied at elite universities and mostly lived abroad or on a coast (this is my fourth and final year based in the central time zone), I would prefer a president with cosmopolitan sensibilities. It’s only natural; people want leaders with whom they can identify culturally–I am amazed at how people who still don’t understand President Bush’s appeal in the heartland don’t grasp this simple point. Now, I would never vote for someone with whom I disagree on fundamental aspects of political philosophy and public policy–no matter how well read or knowledgeable about (non-French) wine–but a lot of people do, those who haven’t had the privilege of being able to study public and international affairs for many years, who don’t have the luxury of being able to read publications like this one on a regular basis.

But leaving aside all that, is there any hope for electing a Bartlet, regardless of how successful his administration would be inside the real Beltway? On the Republican side, the leading candidate would be William Harrison Frist, a Princeton- and Harvard-educated transplant surgeon, world traveler, and author of numerous books on a variety of subjects–though his conservatism has been tempered by the compromising demands of Senate leadership. Or how about, yes, Jeb Bush? He clearly inherited his father’s refinement. Among the Democrats–and if we disqualify the likes of Robert Rubin as never having been elected to anything, and also being insufficiently “of the movement”–perhaps Barack Obama, the Chicago law professor and Illinois legislator who is poised to move to the Senate. Maybe Howard Dean would have fit the bill; heck, Sheen himself campaigned for him. A movement liberal could not be elected in this country, however, which is why Kerry has to resort to his “nuance.”

At the end of the day, maybe this is all just daydreaming; The West Wing is such a success on the small screen because it is, literally, made for TV. Yet when you look at reality, does it not seem that our current president has had his greatest success–in responding to 9/11–when he was most like Josiah Bartlet?

Ilya Shapiro, who watches little TV aside from The West Wing, is currently clerking on the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.