Partway through the second season of The West Wing, which premiered 20 years ago on Sunday, Ainsley Hayes (Emily Proctor) is pondering the unlikely job offer of a lifetime. A young attorney on the verge of Ann Coulter-esque right-wing media superstardom, Hayes has earned the admiration of venerable Democratic president Josiah Bartlet (Martin Sheen) by absolutely wrecking Bartlet’s speechwriter, Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe), in a televised debate. “We should hire her!” Bartlet muses, to his chief of staff's astonishment. When gently reminded that his prospective new associate White House counsel is a Republican, Bartlet responds, “So are half the people in this country!”
Hayes’s recruitment process, as you might imagine, is a rocky one. Staffers are skeptical and scornful of her presence, and after exchanging impassioned barbs with most of them, Hayes decides not to take the job. But before she can say so, she catches a glimpse of Bartlet comforting the visiting president of a fictional African country who learns his sons have been killed in a coup. She is still turning the scene over in her mind when she meets for drinks with her friends, Stereotypical Conservative Man and Woman, who gleefully press her for details about how she ruthlessly owned her sworn enemies. Yet Hayes, her partisan blinders at last lifted by the experience, delivers a tearful defense of her would-be employers instead.
“Say they like high taxes and spending your money. Say they want to take your guns and open your borders, but don't call them worthless,” Hayes snaps. “Their intent is good. Their commitment is true. They are righteous, and they are patriots.” She stops, as if scarcely able to believe the words she’s about to say. “And I’m their lawyer.”
Back in our hellish 2019 reality, of course, no Democratic president would offer a West Wing job to a budding Fox News talking head, and no budding Fox News talking head would seriously consider such an offer, much less accept it in a moment of unrestrained patriotic pique. In real life, Hayes would have taken the interview only so she could pose for a smirking selfie on the White House grounds, accompanied by some dorky caption like “Wow the Democrat Party admits defeat lol #KAGA.” It would have received 20,000 retweets.
The Coulter resemblance here, too, is not a coincidence; West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin allegedly modeled Proctor’s character after Coulter, Laura Ingraham, and one Kellyanne Fitzpatrick, a pollster who has since taken her husband’s last name and now serves in Donald Trump’s White House. Yes, in Sorkin’s imagination, Kellyanne Conway needed only a few hours of bantering with Democrats to see the wisdom of setting aside their petty ideological squabbles and uniting as one for the good of the republic.
To a certain extent, the settings of all great dramas come to stand in for the real thing in popular imagination—Law & Order for courtrooms, ER for hospitals, The Sopranos for Italian-American crime dynasties struggling to operate in a rapidly-evolving society that threatens to make their way of life obsolete, and so on. Yet The West Wing still manages to distinguish itself in this regard because it portrayed an especially opaque place with which few people ever interact. The show’s combination of longevity, cultural relevance, and critical acclaim—it won 26 Emmy Awards over seven seasons, and is regularly listed among the best television shows ever—meant that for normal democracy enthusiasts, watching it every week was as much exposure to the inner sanctum of Washington, D.C. as they’d ever get.
And as far as television goes, The West Wing is entertaining as hell. The dialogue is sharp, the repartee is witty, and the soaring theme make me want to get a bald eagle gripping an American flag in its talons tattooed across my face. It leans on cliche, deus ex machina, and overwrought sexual tension as much as any hourlong network TV show leans on cliche, deus ex machina, and overwrought sexual tension. But as long as you, the viewer, go into each episode willing to cheerfully suspend disbelief, this show delivered compelling stuff week after week.
As a depiction of How Government Works, though, the show is awful: a both-sides fever dream in which those in charge are whip-smart Democrats who treat accusations of smugness as the hater’s way of tacitly conceding the argument, with cameos from token honorable Republicans whose sense of duty demands that they cross the aisle in the country’s various hours of need. Seemingly intractable global crises are resolved by a handful of bureaucrats in the space between commercial breaks. Main characters land devastating haymakers in decades-long culture wars just by delivering saccharine soliloquies over crescendoing orchestral scores.
The years since the show’s 2006 finale (watched by more than 10 million people)—during which the real-world Republican Party rose to power by ignoring laws, shredding norms, and completing a grand pivot to unabashed bigotry—have done little to redeem the West Wing brand of post-partisan optimism. In progressive circles, the show has become a mild slur for every bright-eyed liberal who idolized President Bartlet and now, even in Mitch McConnell’s world of scorched-earth political warfare, nonetheless finds it within themselves to gaze out at the Washington Monument at night and think to themselves, sometimes, in this town, we forget that there’s far more that unites us than divides us.
Such people are, admittedly, naïve and wrong. But The West Wing’s failure as a galvanizing force for political change—to the extent any big-budget soap with a multi-season story arc about an on-again-off-again romance between the president’s daughter and his body man should be expected to fill that role—is an accident of its success as a TV show whose fans, as is often the case with successful TV shows, sometimes took it way too seriously. It embellished details and oversimplified processes for the same reason all scripted entertainment exists: A character-driven drama about life in the White House was never going to be especially “realistic,” because the day-to-day drudgery of Washington is not especially dramatic or character-driven. It is messy and boring and often borders on farcical, which is why Veep is so resonant.
The modern frustration with the stubbornness of center-left politics is real and fair, especially since some of its more visible members still maintain a near-monopoly on power within the Democratic Party. But center-left politics does not owe its continued relevance to an Emmy-winning shorthand for that worldview. And the deep-seated resentments and complex social forces that fueled Trump's political ascension would have been no less powerful if Ainsley and Sam had never crossed paths.
Two decades after it first aired, The West Wing needn’t have its legacy forever tainted because some people sometimes forgot they were watching actors recite lines on a set. As long as you, too, don’t mistake a good drama for a bad documentary, indulging in the occasional grainy YouTube clip of your favorite Jed Bartlet riff does not make you complicit in perpetuating this dynamic. It just means you think Martin Sheen can act.
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Originally Appeared on GQ