The Cult of Bartlet

By Daniel Stratford

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Everyone has one television show that they particularly adore. For those with an intellectual streak, there are shows like the McLaughlin Group, C-SPAN and the like. For those seeking to appease their baser desires, programs like Jersey Shore and The Real World suffice to quench their decadent thirst. However, for the consummate political science major, especially those desirous of a political career later in life, there is one program that stands head and shoulders above its competition, and that has served as both an inspiration to and model upon which political careers have been built. This humble columnist speaks, of course, about The West Wing.

As a political science major and Student Government Association Senator, I can attest to how much influence the show has on the hopes and aspirations of my compatriots. Certainly, The West Wing – with an all-star cast that includes Martin Sheen, Rob Lowe, and Stockard Channing – represents one of the finest political dramas to ever be filmed. Its lifespan, from 1999 to 2006, can, in good faith, be described as epic. Its characters possess gravitas and swagger and its plot evokes the glory of American government. It could be readily asserted that The West Wing is beyond compare in the realm of film, and certainly in a class of its own. What more in life could the devoted student of politics – especially those of a Democratic predisposition – want?

Though most critics, myself included, agree that the show is both engrossing in its scope and meritorious in its execution – and thus worthy of the most lavish admiration on cinematic grounds – there is something disturbing about its impact upon the political thought of our generation. One needs only to look at the West Wing’s impact on the University of Massachusetts community to justify this consternation.

Its fan base includes a broad, bipartisan spectrum of aficionados, and it would not be a stretch to assert that most of the undergraduate political organizations on campus include, at the very least, one West Wing stalwart. The problem that I’m querying, however, is not so much the intellectual stimulation that the show promotes at UMass, but rather, the social influence, and indeed, rigid adherence that its characters command.

I can attest to the fact that many of my compatriots readily attribute their political actions to the influence of Josiah Bartlett, the presidential protagonist played by Martin Sheen. To the casual observer, if there is a television character worthy of reverence, it is Josiah Bartlett. To many he represents the ideals of youth and vigor, and, interestingly, he has one of the most pronounced intellectual streaks of any president since Jefferson or Madison. He frequently cites scripture in each episode, which is not surprising considering that West Wing canon elaborates upon his devout Catholicism, Notre Dame education and a yearning during his college years to eventually don the cloth of a Catholic priest.

What is peculiar about the affinity of the UMass body politic to Bartlett, however, is that they treat his word as if it were the text of scripture itself. In many casual conversations, I have heard even the most petty and mundane of actions justified by the invocation of the words of this fictional television character. Affinity to that degree cannot be characterized as casual affection. Rather, it is a rigid, unflinching adherence to a figment of Aaron Sorkin’s imagination at the expense of reasoned inquiry and genuine research.

This veneration of Bartlett possesses an even more disturbing dimension. His veritable laundry list of accomplishments, including but not limited to a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian imbroglio, are of a breadth and scope that are beyond the reach of any single administration. This is made evident by the fact that the real and contemporary Obama administration could execute only a fraction of its legislative agenda, and managed to win over the public on only a fraction of that fraction. To this claim, the simplistic depictions of the power of President Bartlett lend a tragic credence.

The fact of the matter is that many of Bartlett’s fictional accomplishments would be ground to a halt, if not significantly delayed, by a plethora of other actors in the American political system such as interest groups, lobbies, and, of course, the other two branches of government. The notion, for example, that the decades-long strife between Israelis and Palestinians can be solved over the course of one or two presidential terms is a belief that is completely and utterly detached from reality. The way the President is depicted in the show is more consistent with the tendencies of a monarch than those of the executive branch of the federal triumvirate. The show promotes not just the idolization of Bartlett, but the dangerous idealization of the presidency.

It is this preponderance of accomplishments – the fountainhead of Bartlett’s affability to his fan base – that make his character just that much harder to believe, and indeed, take seriously. The show itself, though imbued with innumerable cinematic merits, is the latest in a long line of attempts to shoehorn the realities of government into ephemeral romanticism. Politics is far more complex than a hot-button issue here, a wedge issue there, and a nice, neat list of consecutive crisis strewn in between.

Political reality is incoherent, nerve-wracking, lugubrious, and the very embodiment of Mark Twain’s assertion that, “The only difference between reality and fiction, is that fiction needs to be credible.” Our republic needs a generation of leaders that are well-versed in the eternal business of statecraft, not in the obduracy of unrealistic expectations.

Dan Stratford is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at [email protected]