In periods of transition, we tend to seek comfort in the nostalgic or familiar. During this tumultuous presidential election season, I have found solace in the first season of the 1999 NBC political drama, The West Wing. This seven-season show, created by Aaron Sorkin, follows fictional president Jed Bartlet and his staff members as they navigate the trials and tribulations associated with leading the free world. Rife with witty quips and tinged with a rosy glow, The West Wing is far from our current political reality, but its idealistic depiction of the workings of the Oval Office carries important messages for present-day Americans voting for what they want their government to become.
Beyond the boxy suits, ‘90s technology, and soaring speeches is an understanding that the purpose of the president and his staff is to make life better for American citizens. Problems arise and difficult choices are made, but each 45-minute episode concludes with a clear reminder that the White House is occupied by good-hearted people who, despite their flaws, care deeply about the issues that affect their constituency. We should expect this, and more, from our leaders.
Others have also turned to The West Wing as a distraction from our real political drama during Trump’s tumultuous term. The pre-9/11, pre-2008 financial crisis, pre-COVID setting can seem almost idyllic compared to the reality we have faced in the past four years, even with the show’s attempt to address issues as serious as capital punishment and hate crimes. For many, The West Wing is a sunny reminder of what politics used to be, or at least how we like to remember it. It was hardly idyllic, but our cognitive biases can make any memory feel like the good ol’ days, especially when the present can seem so dire. According to The New York Times, Americans have reported rewatching favorite episodes in lieu of the inauguration, or to help them fall asleep after another day of the neverending news cycle.
Even real politicians recognize the show’s nostalgic power and role in introducing generations of Americans to the United States’ political system. Former South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg unveiled his presidential campaign office with a short video referencing The West Wing, engaging in a classic “walk and talk” with his aides like those favored by the characters on the show. Additionally, Gene Sperling, the director of the National Economic Council during both the Clinton and Obama administrations, praised the show for humanizing D.C. politicians and inspiring others to pursue political careers.
While I was too young to watch The West Wing when it made its television debut, I did grow up under the Obama administration, and The West Wing reminds me of those years. Watching the close friendships and witty remarks between the White House staff members feels like following former President Obama’s relationship with then-Vice President Joe Biden as they made friendship bracelets and visibly cared for each other. These warm and fuzzy feelings, already rare in politics, have been noticeably absent for the past four years.
I know that the Obama administration had problems, as does the fictional Bartlet administration on The West Wing, but I cannot help but return to those memories. The West Wing is a refuge when I grow discouraged at watching the Trump administration attack journalists, scientists, and political opponents. Sometimes all I can think about is how I know that President Bartlet would have worn a mask and passed strong economic policies if the COVID-19 pandemic had occurred during his fictional presidency.
It is interesting to watch this show for the first time as Trump’s first term draws to a close because President Bartlet and his staff are written to resemble the presidents of our past, rather than the president of our present. We so often describe President Trump as “unprecedented,” which contributes to the stark contrast between the fiction of The West Wing and the reality of the past four years. When the show began, Bartlet probably seemed like a more polished and idealistic version of the presidents of the late 20th century. He is educated and well-spoken, demonstrating a vast knowledge of literature, the Bible, and American history, and he sincerely dedicates himself to taking care of Americans. He is written as an amalgam of storied presidential traits, but with enough flaws to keep his character human and sympathetic. After months of a pandemic in which thousands of lives were unnecessarily lost, I cannot help but wish for a president who shares Bartlet’s genuine care for the American people.
A March survey revealed that only 40% of respondents thought that President Trump cared about “people like them,” compared to 54% who answered that former President Obama did. With these numbers in mind, especially since they were taken before the pandemic reached its peak in the United States, it is not surprising to me that so many people have returned to The West Wing for comfort. We want to feel that the leader of our nation cares about us; we want to know we’re not alone.
Not long after his inauguration, I started having nightmares about Trump and his staff. Following his policies made me anxious, and watching him repeatedly exceed my expectations regarding the human capacity for cruelty made him seem inhuman. In 2017, Saturday Night Live went so far as to depict Steve Bannon as a skeletal ghoul draped in a black hood, complete with ominous music and a Darth Vader-like voice. Perhaps my youth or my privilege contribute to my naivete, but I am still surprised at President Trump’s ability to blatantly lie with no remorse. He demonstrates little regard for the lives of others, and I often fell asleep sick with worry and anger for the vulnerable communities who suffered the most.
In contrast, the characters of The West Wing seem achingly human. They make human mistakes, they talk about their personal lives in the hallways of the White House, and they care for each other while performing some of the most stressful jobs imaginable. Most recently, I switched between following the rushed confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett and the fictional appointment of Roberto Mendoza, who was heavily vetted by President Bartlet and multiple members of his staff to ensure he would protect the interests of the American people. President Bartlet would have done more to help Houston after the devastation of Hurricane Harvey. The fictional speechwriters Toby Ziegler and Sam Seaborn would have written better words of comfort and inspiration to assuage public fear at the parade of tragedies we have experienced. Fictional press secretary C.J. Cregg would have preserved the relationship between the White House and the media, ensuring transparency and accuracy in the information the American people receive.
No matter how much I wish that the administration of The West Wing was the administration of my reality, I know that this is a fictional, idealized representation of American politics. It is not real, but that doesn’t mean we can’t try to make it real. If President Trump has demonstrated an inhuman capacity for cruelty, then Joe Biden is his foil, exhibiting a superhuman power for human decency. His policies include plans for combating COVID, improving clean energy, protecting marginalized communities, and ending gun violence, each of which demonstrates a significant measure of compassion for others. But Biden’s kindness extends beyond his political platform. For example, Biden participated in a February town hall, in which he spoke about overcoming his childhood stutter. After the event, he met privately with a boy who also struggles with a stutter and shared personal advice about learning to improve his speech.
Regardless of Biden’s flaws, which we still have a responsibility to acknowledge, he truly cares for his constituency. We cannot have Jed Bartlet and his staff as the leaders of the United States, but Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are a strong alternative. Biden embodies the quality of genuine human kindness writers of The West Wing exaggerated in Bartlet, and after four years of turmoil and anxiety, I want to elect kindness. We can make reality like The West Wing, we can bring this fictional safe haven into existence.