Antidote to Reality: The West Wing and the Clinton Administration

Written by Dom Jeffrey. Edited by Joscelin Woodend.

The story goes that when Aaron Sorkin first pitched his seminal television show The West Wing to NBC, there were concerns over whether the whole project would ever get off the ground. The concerns stemmed from the major tabloid obsession of the late 1990s – President Bill Clinton’s “relations” with that woman, Miss Lewinsky. How could the viewing public take seriously the notion of an honourable American president, a Democrat, no less, when the real-life current president had quite literally been caught with his pants down? In the end, NBC took the risk, and it paid off. The West Wing was a runaway success, winning a record number of Emmys for its first season, receiving critical acclaim and scores of viewers tuning in. To this day it acts as an inspiration, both in America and on this side of the Atlantic, to those dispirited by political malaise. It is, in a word, excellent.

But why, upon its first commission, did viewers take to it so thirstily? It was, perhaps, an antidote to reality. I refer not to Bill Clinton’s indiscretions in the Oval Office. That was, for many on the left in America, the least of his crimes. I refer instead to his virtual abandonment of core Democratic Party principles throughout his eight years in the White House.

The Democratic Party dominated politics under Presidents Roosevelt and Truman. They shaped the political agenda of the United States for a generation, and instigated seismic shifts in voter demographics and alliances. The ‘Solid South’, reliably Democratic since the Civil War, became a Republican stronghold, as northern, industrial, urban centres became Democratic bastions. African Americans also migrated from the Republican Party, the party of emancipation, to the Democratic Party. However, the New Deal liberalism suffered greatly throughout the 1960s and 70s; Kennedy, gunned down in his prime; Johnson, distracted from his Great Society initiatives by “that bitch of a war” in Vietnam; and Carter, saddled with stagflation, oil crises and a decline of American exceptionalism. It seemed that the Democrats had lost their firm grip on the executive branch. Reagan’s landslide victories in 1980 and 1984 pushed the Democrats further into the electoral wilderness.

And then, after twelve years of Republican rule in the White House, came William Jefferson “Bill” Clinton. He espoused a new political philosophy, a harmonious centrism after decades of partisan bickering. He was a self-described ‘New Democrat’. This appeal tempted back the Blue Dog Democrats, white working-class voters who had jumped ship to Reagan’s brand of heart-warming, good old-fashioned American conservatism in the 1980s. This new philosophy, christened by Clinton’s advisers as the “Third Way” of politics, was certainly electorally successful – Clinton became the first Democrat since Roosevelt to win re-election to the presidency in his own right. But it left those true believers in the American liberal tradition out in the cold somewhat.

Under President Clinton considerable overtures were made towards big business and Wall Street – hardly the cornerstones of Democrat support. Clinton fell under the influence of his Chairman of the Federal Reserve Alan Greenspan – a follower of Ayn Rand, no less – who warned him that should he wish to avert economic crisis, then deep spending cuts in cherished liberal programmes were of utmost necessity. Clinton promptly complied. The US signed up to profoundly un-liberal bodies, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), infuriating the traditionally Democratic trade unionists at the AFL-CIO. Clinton went so far as to repeal the jewel in the crown of Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation, the Glass-Steagall Act, which had implemented a number of safeguards against the worst excesses of unbridled capitalism. Progress in LGBT rights were deliberately sidestepped in order to pacify congressional Republicans, as Clinton consented to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and signed the Defence of Marriage Act into law, actions that President Bartlet would term “legislative gay-bashing.” The abortive intervention in Somalia in 1993 cast a shadow over the rest of the administration’s foreign policy, entailing inactivity in the face of atrocities in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. So pervasive was the centrism of the Clinton White House that many of its achievements could quite conceivably be attributed to a Republican administration.

Which leads us back to The West Wing. If I was an NBC executive receiving Sorkin’s pitch back in 1998, my concern would not have been that no one would take such a concept seriously because the current president was an adulterer. It would have been that no one would find the Bartlet administration credible. An president committed to progressive principles? A Democrat who was actually liberal? Surely not! And yet, the viewing public lapped it up. I’m quite sure that many of The West Wing’s adherents were not enamoured by all of the policies of the fictional Bartlet administration. But the fact that here was a president placing principle before election was enough to warm the cockles of even the most cynical voter. The West Wing is so enduring in popularity because it acts as a reminder that politics can be more than the vapid centrism of the Clinton years. It can be about the nobility of public service and doing what one considers the right thing for the country, regardless of electoral implications. It is, for many both on the left and right in America, a sorely-needed antidote to the cynicism and centrism that has characterised politics for too long. Bartlet for America.