Late in its revelatory debut season, The West Wing aired the April 2000 episode “Let Bartlet Be Bartlet.” Martin Sheen’s President Josiah Bartlet, beaten down by his incessant compromising and his staff’s inability to gain traction on a variety of hot-button issues (gays in the military, campaign finance reform), receives a bracing “come to Jesus” lecture from his no-nonsense chief of staff, Leo McGarry: “We’re stuck in neutral.” Finally, Bartlet snaps out of his funk and resolves to be the tenacious politician he used to be, vowing, “This is more important than re-election.” Leo (played by John Spencer) rallies the senior staff with a stirring call to arms, and as the music swells, they eagerly respond, one by one, “I serve at the pleasure of the president.”
It was a rousing albeit preposterous sequence (when was the last time anyone in D.C. uttered the phrase “this is more important than re-election” and actually meant it?), and is still every bit as compelling to watch today. But it’s also memorable for another reason: It presents a noble image of the presidency, and of politicians, that is absent from TV today, in large part because American audiences no longer dare to dream that even fictional leaders could ever be so upstanding. Seven years after The West Wing ended its run, audiences now gravitate toward political shows like House Of Cards, Scandal, Veep, and the new Alpha House, which are all marvelous (okay, maybe not Alpha House, though John Goodman provides the hope that it might find its way), but revolve around presidents and other leaders who are either despicable, incompetent, or both. In other words, they’re just as selfish, sleazy, and/or stupid as we perceive many contemporary leaders to be.
Americans have always been cynical about politics, and TV has certainly reflected that, but usually through “evil politicians” as supporting characters or villains, not as series leads. That’s changed in the growing political rancor of recent months and years, culminating in October’s federal government shutdown, whose resolution was nothing like its West Wing counterpart (season five’s “Shutdown”). The real one ended with general resignation that partisanship will seemingly always trump statesmanship and historic levels of mistrust and disappointment in elected officials. In November, Gallup announced that Congress’s approval rating had fallen to a record low 9 percent. (The hope and “Yes We Can” jubilation surrounding President Obama’s election in 2008 has also dimmed: His 68 percent approval rating in the early days of his first term had dropped by as much as 30 points in late 2013.) And the stars of House Of Cards and Scandal reflect the current fatigue and deflation over the toxic political environment.
That wasn’t the case in 1999 when Aaron Sorkin—inspired by his success with 1995’s The American President (which featured Sheen as the chief of staff)—created The West Wing. His initial vision was that the president would be on the periphery, only occasionally seen, while the series focused on the West Wing staff. That all changed once Sorkin, and audiences, realized what a force of nature Sheen was, and how much they craved a leader like Josiah Bartlet. Sure, he had his flaws—he concealed his multiple sclerosis from the public, after all—but at his core he was the person we all wished our president could be: smart, bold, caring, and selfless. The same went for his loyal team who put the needs of their country ahead of their own, episode after episode.
Meanwhile, Bartlet’s fellow TV presidents at the time were also honorable, worthy leaders, especially President David Palmer from 24 (Dennis Haysbert). In the mid-’00s, a pair of short-lived, West Wing-inspired shows—ABC’s Commander In Chief, with Geena Davis as a vice president called to duty when the president dies after suffering a brain aneurysm, and NBC’s Mister Sterling, starring Josh Brolin as an idealistic senator—also carried the torch for nobility as a virtue in elected officials. Back then, even as real-life leaders faltered (Monica Lewinsky, hanging chads), we could still cling to the fantasy of a “superhero” president.
That is no longer the case. The popular political drama Scandal is packed with morally compromised characters. President Fitzgerald “Fitz” Grant (Tony Goldwyn) was revealed in the pilot to be cheating on the First Lady with not one but two woman (Kerry Washington’s Olivia Pope and a soon-to-be-murdered intern). Then in season two, Fitz upped the ante by murdering—with his own hands!—a Supreme Court justice who threatened to reveal he had stolen the presidency thanks to election tampering done on his behalf. This season, he’s drinking heavily and spending hours each day calling, meeting with, or pining over Olivia Pope and the life they could have together. (Doesn’t he have a country to run?) Fitz’s version of Bartlet’s “This is more important than re-election” speech would involve him getting laid.
Although he’s not president—not yet, at least—House Of Cards’ House majority whip, Rep. Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey), also has blood on his hands. Furious at being passed over for the secretary of state position he was promised after helping get the new president elected, Underwood spent the first season scheming, blackmailing, manipulating, backstabbing, and ultimately murdering to slither his way into being offered the vice presidency. He’s brilliant at what he does, but what he does isn’t to serve his constituents—they, like everyone else he encounters, are a necessary evil to be endured. His every line seethes with contempt and resentment: “Every Tuesday I sit down with the speaker and the majority leader to discuss the week’s agenda. Well, ‘discuss’ is probably the wrong word… They talk, while I imagine their lightly salted faces frying in a skillet.”
On the comedy side, the politicians are more hapless than devious. Vice President Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), the star of HBO’s acerbic Veep, had ambition, but now she’s just another pencil pusher (or, to paraphrase a line from the pilot, “pencil-fucked” pusher), treading water in a job with only perceived authority. The character puts it best herself when she tells her chief of staff, “I’m the veep I never wanted to be,” adding, “I can feel my soul slide out of my ass.” She serves at the displeasure of the president, who keeps her at arm’s length (and whom the audience still hasn’t met) and occupied with an endless, thankless schedule of menial meet-and-greets.
Veep’s lesser comedic sibling, Amazon’s debut original series, Alpha House, revolves around four Republican senators (most notably, John Goodman’s Gil John Biggs, a North Carolina politician who has spent years coasting on his past success as a basketball coach) who bunk together in a D.C. row house during the week. Like Selina, Gil John only tangentially cares about making any kind of difference in Washington; his biggest priorities are keeping himself in office and making sure that he’s able to nap in peace during his morning shower. He tags along on a visit to the troops to Afghanistan, “pulling a John McCain” with his roomies, only because it will buy him some much-needed political capital during a suddenly competitive election battle.
As much as I enjoy reveling in these characters, I hope that we haven’t seen the last of the noble TV politician. I want to believe there are still brilliant political leaders out there, that we’re still capable of having someone like President Bartlet, who has the brains—and the stomach—to cut through all the posturing and bullshit while bravely leading us into the future.
Even if it’s only on TV.