In 1999, when The West Wing premiered, I was a graduated Badger of 23 years old living in a New York City one-bedroom apartment with three roommates. My political science degree was being put to use as a commercial real estate paralegal for a firm in the World Trade Center. I’ve always tried to put my heart into everything I do, but I confess—having been drawn into politics as sophomore in college by Bernie Sanders, this was a stretch.
But in September of that year, on our small television that had knobs and not a remote—that was positioned next to our stove where we could sit four across on the couch to watch—The West Wing transported me, if only one hour a week, to the hustle and bustle of Washington D.C., complete with pithy dialogue, empathy and devotion to public service. Also, Sam Seaborn was hot.
This led me to an important existential question: did hot people work at the White House? Because I had not met any hot people working as an intern for Senator Sanders on Capitol Hill.
The show saw us through the end of the Clinton era, the 2000 election and recount, 9/11, and eight years of George W. Bush, Karl Rove and Dick Cheney. When we needed a place to go and feel secure, President Josiah Edward "Jed" Bartlet was there asking “What’s next?”
C.J. Craig was demanding honesty from her colleagues to share in the Press Briefing Room. Toby was trying to restructure Social Security. Sam was writing sweeping speeches that comforted an imagined world during conjured dark times. Josh was busy being a dick on behalf of the American people (but also he was just a dick). (Years later, when I began working for President Obama's chief of staff, Rahm Emmanuel, whose time in the Clinton Administration inspired the character of Josh, I realized the real Rahm was almost too unbelievable for primetime.)
Aaron Sorkin’s West Wing was bustling with people and romantically lit. There were dark corners for top secret conversations. Their fatigue, commitment to good and banter were aspirational. They labored over difficult decisions and helped us understand how hard it is to be president, and to work in the White House.
When I watched I remember thinking, “I hope someday I can be Donna." Which is why now when I get the occasional “who were you in the West Wing” during Q&A sessions, I get incensed that people assume Donna. For the same reason that I thought I could only be Donna.
When Barack Obama became the 44th president of the United States, I went to the White House for my first time. Then Bush chief of staff Josh Bolton welcomed us and had his team take us on a tour because none of us had never set foot in the West Wing. We stood at the threshold of the Oval Office like it was electrified.
When we walked through the doors of West Reception that damp dank day in December 2003, the West Wing score played quietly in my head. It was bright and felt like someone’s home. It was carpeted and people definitely didn’t walk with the briskness that they did in the show. Sorkin’s offices were much bigger than what existed in the real West Wing. And the Real West Wing is very, very quiet. It was far more extraordinary than the imagined one.
In the real West Wing, things don’t often get tied up with a feel good-bow at the end of the hour and the work is far from glamorous—most of the time. That said, when it was announced that 14 years after its finale, the original cast (plus some) would be returning for a one-night-only affair—a staging of the “Hartfield’s Landing” episode, I cried as I watched the trailer.
While I knew what the actual West Wing was like, I could not wait to be transported back to a place in time where everything mattered.
And so on the same night that Donald Trump aggressively defended his (lack of) COVID response and called Savannah Guthrie “so cute”, we saw Joe Biden fully masked, throughly and calmly, answering questions in such detail that I was reminded of Jed Barlet.
Then we got to see Jed Barlet again. And the juxtaposition of Biden and Barlet on the same night made Trump feel like the aberration we hope he is. I am not trying to be deep or introspective here. Rather, can you for a minute even imagine Donald Trump playing chess? Presidents generally should have the attention span for something like chess.
My enjoyment in seeing this revival was not because I have any dreams of a return to a world of older whiter dudes who talk too fast being in power. A world where a woman can be....Donna. But it did remind of a world where a president’s thoughts were expressed in more than 280 characters, and empathy wasn’t endangered.
For West Wing nerds like myself I will say that the only episode that would have been better to see back on stage is "Two Cathedrals." President Bartlet smoking a cigarette and then crushing the butt on the floor of the National Cathedral with "Brothers in Arms" playing in the background during a hurricane is my 2020 energy.
Oh also, a confession: I was Josh not Donna. And I really tried not to be dick.
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