I love “West Wing”. It is one of a handful of television dramas (“The Bold Ones”, “Hill Street Blues”, the first seasons of “St. Elsewhere” and “Mad Men” ) that was worth watching for it’s artistic value alone. It is, at times, brilliant; it’s always at least very good (at least up to the fifth season). It is occasionally — very occasionally– annoying. We’re hardest on the ones we love, aren’t we?
Bartlet is allegedly a liberal, and he generally holds liberal positions on most social and some fiscal issues. In fact, the show makes a point of Bartlet– unlike Clinton and Obama in real life– actually standing firm for certain enlightened, tolerant, liberal positions, instead of compromising in order to cut deals with red state Democrats or Republicans.
Real liberals, however, don’t have a lot of reverence for the military. They might or might not believe that the military and the police are necessary, but it’s a regrettable necessity, and real liberals can’t not be conscious of the fact that the culture of the military is decidedly anti-liberal. Real liberals want to make the world safe for wimps. Real liberals recognize that the culture of authoritarian militarism is a self-sustaining model for violence and repression.
But Sorkin’s projection, President Bartlet, is a post-Reagan Democrat. Post-Reagan Democrats like Clinton and Obama realized that to get elected, you had to outflank the republicans on law and order and guns and the death penalty. So Bartlet sucks up to the military.
I think it is a desperate attempt by a thin-skinned liberal to prove to the world that he is not a pussy.
Why it matters to Sorkin, that Bartlet is not perceived as a pussy, is beyond me. It’s obviously a touchy issue, for it is handled on “West Wing” with this awkward, prissy bravado, as if Sorkin wants to make sure that no one suspects for even one moment that he isn’t willing to kill lots of people if it’s helpful to American interests, because, God bless us, we’re Americans. Behind that bravado can only be the absolutely godless and anti-liberal assumption that an American life is inherently more valuable than an Arab or French or African life.
In the episode entitled “What Kind of Day has it Been”, an American fighter pilot patrolling the no-fly zone over Iraq (part of the peace conditions after the first U.S. – Iraq War under Bush I) is shot down. Bartlett goes all mushy with concern about the pilot, his family, his pet hamster and goldfish, and at one point announces that if anything happens to this pilot he will invade Baghdad. He says this with great sterninity and gravitas. I am not a pussy.
No real person like this — Bartlet, at this moment– exists. A real liberal would have already been considering whether it would be wise to start an entire war requiring the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people to get back at a man for causing the death of one American pilot. But Bartlet is, at that moment, utterly a projection of Sorkin’s insecurities about his liberalism: they might not think I’m manly!
Sorkin’s fussy compensatory projections emerge quite regularly, often expressed as awestruck respect for Secret Service Agents and Generals. The awful part of this is that some liberals, knowing that Sorkin is an enlightened liberal himself, might conclude that most military men really are quite sane and rational and, well, just so damn manly.
The most evil moment of this Sorkinese perspective came in Episode 72 (“Election Night”) when Donna fell hard for Christian Slater as an uber-manly military aide. Oh my gawwdd– he’s just so hot! At least, compared to the thoughtful and compassionate Josh Lyman. But then, Donna spent much of the first season complaining about having to pay taxes. West Wing’s incipient Tea Party leader.
At a meeting in the situation room to discuss the downed pilot, a member of the “individuals in suits who sit in the situation room to make it look like an important situation has developed group” lamely suggests they pursue diplomatic channels instead of considering a military rescue. Leo, oozing with manly testosterone, castrates the man with rusty nail-clippers. We are not prissy little pinafore-waving dilettantes! Not we! And, after all, this is an AMERICAN life at stake. But Sorkin betrays his double-standard: this straw man arguing for negotiation is a preposterous caricature of a liberal’s projection of what a conservative thinks a liberal sounds like. Follow me? And he is provided to us precisely so Leo and Bartlet can look manly by contrast, even though they are in favor of health care.
I admire Sorkin’s ability to present both sides of most hot political issues with credibility and conviction. There is a case to be made for a strong military response to certain events, to lower taxes, and to strong security. But why is he so afraid to show us the Donald Rumsvelds, the Richard Perles, the Westmorelands, the Gulf of Tonkins, the faked intelligence, the paranoid crypto-fascists, the torturers (who all came out of the woodwork– you think from nowhere?– during the Bush Administration)? It’s a glaring omission, especially since Sorkin is so careful to show us the faults in the liberal true-believers. I am convinced he doesn’t want to be accused of being a being what used to be called a “bleeding heart” liberal.
It’s all a grand tribute to how TV and Hollywood works– we all love to look rational and enlightened and compassionate but when the rubber hits the road, we are brutes and killers and always will be.
Sorkin’s other soft spot…
Is Sorkin, like so many other Hollywood celebrities, in therapy? In episode “Noel” (Season 2), Josh Lyman has a episode Sorkin must have snatched right from the dime-store psychology section. Lyman is anxious, easily angered, tense, nervous, and he can’t relax. Instead of going to a Talking Heads Concert, he yells at the President. He cuts his hand. Leo orders him to see a psychologist, Dr. Stanley Keyworth. Keyworth can only be described as godlike, in his infinite wisdom and patience. He is the ultimate projection of every psychotherapist’s wettest dreams. He is also, in his absolute conviction that he is fit to judge the sanity of other people, the most arrogant character ever to appear on West Wing.
We are asked to believe that Josh didn’t notice that it was a window, not a glass that he broke with this fist– repression!– and that whenever music plays he actually hears sirens, or at least his subconscious interprets the music as sirens, or thinks that it sounds like sirens which subconsciously reminds him of real sirens— whatever. The smugness with which Dr. Stanley asserts these things, and the creepy way Josh goes Bedford in response (after the cliché-ridden resistance phase has passed), practically crawling on his hands and knees and licking Dr. Keyworth’s boots, was a low point of season 2. I mean, really, really low.
Even more creepily, Sorkin glibly presents Stanley with the power to label Josh as PTSD and, if he wanted to remove him from the White House staff, and even have him institutionalized, all on the basis of and with the only authority of his so-called “expertise”.