Thursday, 2 August 2007

The West Wing

by Charles Pooter

Ted's previous post prompted me to write the following comment, which I'll now arrogantly promote to the front page of the blog.

The West Wing is fun to watch, but ultimately it is a modern version of the Platonic fantasy: the philosopher king.

There is a romantic, but deluded notion amongst some American "liberals" that one day they will get their perfect President: a beacon of benevolent omnipotence at the head of the Executive branch. This is a myth fuelled by the cult of JFK (not the real JFK who ordered the Bay of Pigs invasion, but the alternative-reality Kennedy, who would have ushered in a new Camelot if he had not been murdered).

The romantics who subscribe to this notion are always looking for their Josiah Bartlet, but invariably they end up with a Bill Clinton (followed by a George W. Bush). The American founders were more realistic. All men are fallible, so they tried to ensure that too much power could not be placed in the hands of the Executive. This doctrine, originally coined by Montesquieu, is called "separation of powers".

Perhaps American liberals should spend less time fantasising over Josiah Barlet's fictional regime and more time reclaiming some of the power stolen by the Executive branch in the last two centuries.


mattsantos said...

Hello, Ted's West Wing apologist brother here.
Interesting enough, when Martin Sheen talks about who he models Josiah Bartlett on, he says a mixture of JFK and Jimmy Carter. JFK one might expect as a model for a heroic fictional president but Jimmy Carter surprises. Perhaps Martin Sheen admires Carter's beliefs rather than his incompetence and modest record in office.
Whilst I concede The West Wing doesn't reflect political reality (amongst Bartlett's many achievements he singlehandedly negotiated a settlement between Israel and Palestine), it is by far the closest thing TV drama gets to the complexity of US Politics. There are fictional presidents aplenty in shows like 24 and Prison Break but they are as realistic as Emporer Palpatine. Aaron Sorkin's show stands comparison with any of the great TV shows of our age.

Pritchard Buckminster said...

I always feel a little sad when I catch the West Wing (or 24, or that one with Geena Davis) as here is, cleanly encapsulated, the American Dream President played out with varying levels of competence. (Personally I find Martin's personal beliefs so at odds with him playing the President that I can't manage suspension of disbelief but hey ho). As these characters are so consistent in their traits and so consistently not who is running the country you have to feel very sorry for the people that live there. It's like showing a cheeseburger to a man on a diet. Ha

On an aside, Clinton was far and away my favourite (best of a bad bunch) and when you see how much was spent on running him out of office you can't help but conclude that it was a deliberate policy to stop him doing some of the things he wanted to bring in. Plus he got to boink in the oval office, I mean, that's just cool!