The West Wing

The West WingWe’ve been working our way through the first series of The West Wing again. I have only seen the White House from the outside and, according to insiders, a lot of geographical liberties were taken within the ultimately claustrophobic space where most of the action takes place. The series was criticised also for the schmaltzy depiction of such key characters as the President himself (played very well by Martin Sheen) and his chief of staff. But, schmaltz or not, the series is good on at least some of the fundamentals. In the first place, there is the frenetic activity of the staff (revolving through all those ‘walk-and-talks’, with clever camera work, around the relative calm of the main man) and all of the jealousies and suspicions and rivalries that can be generated by working cheek-by-jowl 24/7 with a gang of very clever and committed high achievers who all know they have precious little time to make a small mark on history before planning their ‘next future’. A President’s four year mandate might be characterised by revolution, then consolidation, then legacy, but the stark truth is that a President can be well into the second year of his term before his administration is fully in place, and the pre-election frenzy starts once again already eighteen months out (for those aiming for a second term, but also for those who are not). Assuming the majorities are there on Capitol Hill (not an automatic assumption any more), even a relatively unambitious President has precious little time to just be President. In the second place, the series is good on the constant firefighting. Something is forever cropping up and it and its consequences have to be contained. In his memoirs, Tony Blair writes evocatively about the frustrating realisation that leaders and their administrations spend most of their time on relatively unimportant matters and subsequently too little of their time on the truly important issues. Clearly, the scriptwriters did a lot of research and the depth to that was illustrated to me by one small moment when the President’s Chief-of-Staff (John Spencer’s excellent Leo McGarry) urges him to leave an issue to his successor (the political equivalent of sweeping rubble under the carpet). Sheen’s Josiah Bartlet dismisses such a possibility for he is already a future member of the trades union of former presidents – that very small club of people who have actually done the job and wrestled with the moral dilemmas only they have to deal with and therefore can fully understand.


  1. Hugo Kijne

    I don’t know where you found that ‘schmaltzy’ criticism but in my humble opinion it’s one of the best series ever made.

  2. Martin

    As I recall, it was because of the slow-burning plot device of the President’s MS. But I agree with you. It’s a very fine series.

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