by Julian Spivey
I miss Jed Bartlet. It’s hard to believe it’s been 10 years since the greatest President of my lifetime left the Oval Office and the world quickly went to Hell (mostly through the fault of those outside of the White House).
Is it unusual to call a fictional character the greatest President of my lifetime?
Oh well, I can’t help but thinking Bartlet will always be my favorite President – fictional or otherwise. Hell, I even have a Bartlet for America T-shirt hanging in my closet that is sure to get a lot of wear time between now and the actual Presidential election in November. If I were a voting man I’d be tempted to write his name in on the ballot (do they actually allow that anymore in the times of electronic voting?)
The thing about the legend of Bartlet is that he seemingly gets better throughout the years. With the way the political climate is now where if you’re a conservative you have to hate all liberals and vice versa and the fact that Donald “Bully” Trump is the presumptive Republican nominee and is actually polling close to Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democrat candidate, in some polls makes me like and long for a Jed Bartlet Presidency even more 10 years after “The West Wing” aired its series finale, or seven or so years after I first watched the series – which I binged on DVD after catching a few random episodes in syndication and quickly fell in love with. The show aired its series finale my senior year in high school, when like most 17-to-18 year olds I didn’t care much for nor followed politics. When I got to college, started paying more attention to the real world and its many issues that’s when Bartlet became my political hero. Like many of my heroes he wasn’t a real person, but a creation or really a dream of what might one day be.
It wasn’t just Bartlet, as portrayed by the marvelous Martin Sheen, either but his entire staff consisting of Leo McGary (John Spencer), C.J. Cregg (Allison Janney), Joshua Lyman (Bradley Whitford), Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff) and Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe). If anybody cares I’m probably most like Toby of any of the show’s characters. You can determine for yourselves whether you think that’s a good or a bad thing.
I admired all of these fictional political figures greatly and they all both allowed Bartlet to be Bartlet and made him the great, admirable President he was.
The truly amazing thing about President Bartlet is that he is seemingly liked, if not even beloved – but maybe not to the same extent – by even conservative viewers of the show. I’ve shared conversations with conservatives over a mutual liking of “The West Wing” and then wondered silently or even a time or two aloud why they were actually conservative if they loved this fictional liberal so much.
I believe the answer is because he’s fictional and this show isn’t close to being about the real world. It’s almost fairy-tale-ish in how beloved Bartlet is – though that’s with viewers and not necessarily the fictional Republicans in the show. Though it should be noted even the vilest Republican politicians on “The West Wing” are nothing compared to the actual ones who ran for the Republican Presidential nominee this past year.
It may seem fairy-tale-ish, but ‘West Wing’ is meant more to be a tutorial on what can happen with politics, rather than a mirror of real-life – even when it aired from 1999-2006. “The Newsroom,” Aaron Sorkin’s brilliant HBO drama from 2012-2014, was similar in the way it approached both journalism and conservatives, with news anchor Will McAvoy, an Emmy-winning performance from Jeff Daniels, both being a conservative while also going after conservatives after tiring of their bullshit. McAvoy was probably more of a liberal hero while being a conservative than Bartlet was a conservative hero being a liberal, but “The West Wing” undoubtedly would have a more mass appeal than “The Newsroom,” which I’d be shocked if it had a conservative following, at all.
Sorkin, the creator of both series, is an idealist and that’s something I greatly admire in his work and why I’ve enjoyed all of his television series (also “Sports Night” and “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip”) whether they failed or not. Many seem to be over Sorkin’s idealism and also his ideology, which no doubt leans liberal, in addition to his grandiosity when it comes to writing dialogue that just doesn’t exist in the modern world, if it ever even existed at all – think modern day Shakespearean soliloquies about the wrongs of the world needing to be righted or the way characters would’ve shot dialogue back and forth to each other in ‘30s screwball comedies.
Hell, Sorkin is such an idealist that his version of a Republican Presidential nominee in Arnold Vinick (an Emmy-winning performance by the brilliant Alan Alda) would’ve potentially been the greatest President of modern times and certainly would’ve been deemed either a liberal or a third-party candidate today.
Sorkin creates characters bigger than the real world because he knows either what we are capable of or the kind of hero we need to help actually make America great again. That hero isn’t Donald Trump – though I’d like to see Sorkin take a stab at writing the screenplay that has been Trump’s rise from billionaire to reality TV personality to potential President of the United States. That hero is Jed Bartlet. But unfortunately he doesn’t exist in the real world and probably never will.
He’s still the greatest President of my lifetime regardless.