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The ‘Wing’ Is the Thing

“The West Wing”–NBC’s top-rated drama–brings the White House to your house every Wednesday evening.

The show’s Web site characterizes “Wing” as a “behind-the-scenes glimpse into the inner-workings of the Oval Office as seen through the eyes of its eclectic group of frenzied staffers.”
It earned nine Emmy awards, including best drama series, in its 1999-2000 inaugural season. It also garnered a Peabody Award for excellence in television and a Golden Globe nomination. Roughly 15 million people watch the show every week–an impressive figure.
Martin Sheen plays Josiah Bartlet, a New Hampshire Democrat who occupies the Oval Office. Bartlet’s wit and wisdom are matched by his capable staff–chief of staff and deputy chief, communications director and deputy director, press secretary and personal aide.
“There’s a great tradition in storytelling that’s thousands of years old, telling stories about kings and their palaces, and that’s really what I wanted to do,” said Aaron Sorkin, the show’s creator, in an interview with PBS’ NewsHour.
Now in its second season, the show continues to draw praise and criticism for the manner in which the White House staff deal with issues.
“This is a White House [staff] that bothered quite a few people, people on the right,” Sorkin told NewsHour.
For example, Matt Garrett operates a Web site called “The Left . . . er . . . The West Wing.”
The show is a “60-minute political message paid for by Citizens to Elect a Democrat, ANY Democrat to the White House,” wrote Garrett on the site. “In fact, we’re so paranoid about a mean-spirited Republican winning the Presidency, we’ll use faulty logic, misinterpreted statistics, and left wing story lines to ‘educate’ our audience into voting our way.”
Chris Lehmann, writing for Atlantic Monthly, portrayed the show’s White House in opposition to Middle America.
“The heroic outbursts from ‘The West Wing’s’ lead characters are almost always directed at the forces of cultural reaction gathering in the heartland: the religious right, anti-gay moralists, creationists, advocates of anti-abortion terror, tough-on-crime yahoos, and shrill defenders of the Second Amendment,” wrote Lehmann.
The most infamous example of such behavior occurred in an episode called “The Midterms.”
“There’s a high-handed showdown between Bartlet and one Dr. Jenna Jacobs–a moralizing radio talk-show host clearly modeled on Dr. Laura Schlessinger,” Lehmann wrote.
In the showdown, President Bartlet took “Dr. Jenna” to task for her rigid and literal interpretation and application of the Bible.
“I’m interested in selling my youngest daughter into slavery as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7,” Bartlet told Dr. Jenna. “She’s a Georgetown sophomore, speaks fluent Italian, and always clears the table when it’s her turn. What would a good price for her be?”
“My Chief of Staff, Leo McGarry, insists on working on the Sabbath,” Barlet continued. “Exodus 35:2 clearly says he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself or is it okay to call the police?”
Sorkin rejected the notion that art, in general, represents political philosophies.
“I don’t think that television shows or, for that matter, movies or plays or paintings or songs can be liberal or conservative,” he said on NewsHour. “I think that they can only be good or bad.”
He further defended the show by noting it possesses characteristics which should appeal to more conservative viewers.
“‘The West Wing’ is a show that has no gratuitous violence, no gratuitous sex. It has featured the character of the president of the United States kneeling on the floor of the Oval Office and praying,” said Sorkin. “This, I would think, would be exactly what conservative Republicans would want to see on television.”
In an episode titled “Take This Sabbath Day,” Bartlet opted not to commute a man’s death sentence. When he later questioned the decision, he told a priest he “prayed for wisdom,” but it never came.
“He sent you a priest, a rabbi, and a Quaker, Mr. President. Not to mention his son, Jesus Christ. What do you want from him?” the priest responded.
The show has also featured characters who surprise each other and the audience, demonstrating that issues are multi-faceted and complex.
In “Take This Sabbath Day,” Bartlet asked his personal aide, Charlie, if Charlie would want to see his mother’s killer executed.
“I wouldn’t want to see him executed, Mr. President,” Charlie said. Barlet nodded in understanding. But then Charlie added, “I’d wanna do it myself.”
In another episode titled “In This White House,” Bartlet hired a young Republican female as assistant White House counsel because, in the words of the chief of staff, “The president likes smart people who disagree with him.”
“So far Sorkin is successfully walking the razor wire of political balance, rather than political correctness,” wrote Rose Marie Berger in Sojourners.
Marlin Fitzwater served as press secretary in the Reagan and Bush administrations. Now a consultant for the show, he told NewsHour “The West Wing” effectively conveys the “camaraderie” that builds in every White House staff.
“Whether you agree with what they do or not,” he said, “they’re trying to do the best they can by their party, their country and their president.”
Cliff Vaughn is BCE’s associate director.
πŸ˜‰ “The West Wing” airs Wednesdays at 9:00 p.m. EST. Visit the show online at http://www.nbc.com/westwing/
πŸ˜‰ Visit Sojourners at http://www.sojo.net