return to ICG Spaces home    ICG Risk Blog    discussions    newsletters    login    

Aaron Sorkin's "West Wing" versus Joel Surnow's "24": a palpable slide in US public diplomacy


Few Americans understand the impact that West Wing made abroad as well as at home, that it was nothing short of a diplomatic minister without portfolio, retrieving a glimmer of Augustine's "shining city on a hill" in the minds of many Europeans that were otherwise immediately disposed to criticize the US and the Bush43 administration. Distilling the comments of my English colleagues, I will go so far as to say that West Wing painted a weekly picture of an idealized, desirable US, taught many foreign nationals (and some US citizens) how our government functioned, set administration actions in a historical context and invisibly eased the rising pressure against cooperation with the US in Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) in Iraq.

Its successor, 24, has inverted this vision by a rising, now continuously applied, level of torture that cements in the minds of many foreign nationals, that Abu Ghraib was commonplace rather than the exception we claim it to be. The level of mayhem, as idealized as was the workings of government in West Wing, has become so great that the US military has taken steps to call for a reduction in its violence and an accurate rendering of the interrogation process.

West Wing and 24 are polar opposites. This two-part note speaks to their impacts here and abroad. The diplomatic minister without portfolio has morphed into a ruthless inquisitor worthy of Torquemada. The message is not lost on foreign viewers or, for that matter, US troops in combat areas.

Ignorance of public diplomacy as a general rule

Far too many US nationals are unaware of the value of public diplomacy or of the impact their actions, or the perceptions of those actions, have on those beyond our borders. I am consistently saddened that the content of John Brown's excellent survey of public diplomacy, notably his PUBLIC DIPLOMACY PRESS AND BLOG REVIEW (PDPBR), seem to largely pass without notice in the popular press and too much of the high street press. (I am pleased to say that I made it into 23-28 December PDPBR for The ventriloquist, the ventriloquist's dummy and SecState Rice.)

Film and TV entertainment form an important part of that public diplomacy, often influencing the belief systems of foreign nationals far more strongly than does our formal diplomacy. A start on the pros and cons is Hollywood and the Spread of Anti-Americanism. See Some Countries Remain Resistant to American Cultural Exports for macro themes in cultural and entertainment transfer. West Wing and 24 are squarely in that entertainment sector and have had, in the case of West Wing, and will have, in the case of 24, significant impact on perceived US actions and intent.

West Wing's break from political parody to assumed reality

Sarah Cavendish's The West Wing: President as Symbol addressed West Wing's unique transitional characteristics:

The West Wing is in uncharted territory for its positive portrayal of the political system. According to Jackson (2000), "Before The West Wing, presidential parody was the best television could offer," (p. 3). The implication of this statement is that The West Wing is much closer to reality than it is to parody. The tone of this show is undoubtedly liberal, yet the interactions between the President and his staff are symbolic of presidencies both Republican and Democrat (Auster, 2000). This show functions as the common man’s way of seeing inside the White House. Lehmann (2001) and Wolff (2000) each explore the growing significance of The West Wing in American life.

Lehmann (2001) notes the appearance of "Bartlet for President" bumper stickers in southern California during campaign 2000. Bartlet for President? What is it about this fictional Presidency that people find so attractive? Lehmann describes The West Wing’s purpose as two-fold. First, it functions as a television program to entertain viewers. However, according to Lehmann, that function is secondary in nature. In reality, " The West Wing sets out, week after week, to restore public faith in the institutions of our government, to shore up the bulwarks of American patriotism, and to supply a vision of executive liberalism—at once principled and pragmatic; mandating both estimable political vision and serious personal sacrifice; plying an understanding of the nation’s common good that is heroically heedless of focus groups, opposition research, small-bore compromise, and re-election prospects—that exists nowhere else in our recent history," (Lehmann, 2001, p. 2).

Wolff (2000) dubs Martin Sheen as President Bartlet " our remote-control president." Even this title implies the impact The West Wing is having in American culture. He contends that The West Wing functions as a parallel world, one in which many Americans would prefer to live. As Wolff states, " it’s a television set piece, something entirely formulaic, earnest, goody-goody, proud of itself, overproduced. And exactly for these reasons it many be on its way to being the most important political document of the age," (p. 3). Finally, Wolff (2000) articulates the symbolic role President Bartlet is assuming in American life. He is, "…an actor who just plays the president [who] is becoming as potent a symbol as the actual presidency…President Bartlet is fully idealized. And yet, it is an oddly or beguilingly, credible portrait. We seem to want it to be, anyway," (p. 7). Drawing upon current research concerning rhetoric in popular culture and presidential research defining essential characteristics of a president, this study will explore how President Josiah " Jed" Bartlet is constructed as a fictional president...

The decision-making processes enacted for policy decisions allow the President to seek advice from others before making a final decision. A sense of history affects President Bartlet’ s decision-making by allowing him to learn from the past. In addition to learning from the past, President Bartlet also transmits his knowledge of history to the next generation… History, then, as portrayed on The West Wing, is cyclical because it influences both the President’ s decisions and symbolically, offers perspective to future generations… [The] attention to history portrayed on The West Wing is another way the creators of this show strengthen this fictional president as embodying roles of real presidents...

The behind the scenes processes portrayed on The West Wing can be as simple as the President talking to Leo about a domestic policy issue or as complex as a situation room briefing on a submarine that is lost in North Korea. The use of these processes allows viewers to be on the inside of decisions. At the end of an episode, viewers are able to understand why and how a decision was reached and more importantly, appreciate the strength and resolve of the President who made it...

[The] audience [sees] the balance of humanness and strength that are key to this construction of President. Previous portrayals of politicians and presidents on television and in film have generally possessed one quality or the other, both not both. The West Wing overcomes this dichotomy by encompassing both humanness and strength. In doing so, the creators of this television show construct a portrait of President that is realistic. Normal people have strengths and weaknesses, and by extension, the leader of our country does as well. President Bartlet, then, is " a president we can all agree on" because he is simultaneously someone who we could imagine having a cup of coffee with and someone who we could be comfortable leading us into war.

West Wing as "subversive competitor" to government

Rollins and O'Connor's The West Wing: The American Presidency as Television Drama goes far in explaining the effect and reach of West Wing here and abroad. Two of its more interesting items are available here. Recommended:

The West Wing is not completely accurate in its portrayal of the actual West Wing because of the certain amount of melodrama that must be added to each episode to captivate viewers. However, former White House staffers agree that the show "captures the feel [of the West Wing], shorn of a thousand undramatic details."

Former White House aide Matthew Miller noted that West Wing's original script writer, Sorkin"

"captivates viewers by making the human side of politics more real than life or at least more real than the picture we get from the news." Miller also noted that by portraying politicians with empathy, the show created a "subversive competitor" to the cynical views of politics in media. In the essay "The West Wing and the West Wing", author Myron Levine agreed, stating that the series "presents an essentially positive view of public service and a healthy corrective to anti-Washington stereotypes and public cynicism."

Staci Beavers' The West Wing as a Pedagogical Tool spoke of the West Wing's viability "as a teaching tool":

"While the series’ purpose is for-profit entertainment, The West Wing presents great pedagogical potential." The West Wing [gave] greater depth to the political process usually espoused only in stilted talking points on shows like Face the Nation and Meet the Press.

"Across the pond" affection for West Wing

The UK's attention to West Wing started at the top:

The staffers at Number 10, Downing Street, the heart of British government, are addicted to West Wing. They are fascinated by the insight into the political plumbing, and enjoy vicariously the experience of real power.

Speaking for many in the UK, the Guardian's Jonathan Freedland spoke of the dread of the passing of West Wing: in End of the alt oval office:

We've known this moment was coming, but it doesn't mean we're prepared. Sure, the video is set, primed to record, all social engagements have been cancelled and the phones will be switched off. But such technical preparations are not the point. What I'm speaking about is emotional readiness. Are we emotionally equipped for the end of The West Wing?

The last ever episodes air tonight on More4 and, for a small band of devotees, today's page in the diary is edged in black. This is the show that has gripped us for six years; the Bartlet presidency it depicts has endured longer than the Bush one. For the last few months, watching this seventh series, we have followed the Santos v Vinick presidential contest as closely as we would any real election. And now we shall have to live without it.

With typically adroit timing, these final episodes coincide with a prime ministerial visit to Washington: tonight you'll be able to flick between More4 and the news channels and see the White House on all of them. What's more, you'll have a chance to compare the diplomatic style of the fictional administration with the real thing.

The BBC noted the cancellation of West Wing thusly:

Set in the West Wing of the White House, it follows the administration of fictional Democratic president Josiah "Jed" Bartlet, played by Hollywood veteran Martin Sheen. Touching on issues such as anti-terror legislation and presidential scandal, its view of White House life earned the series an unprecedented 24 Emmy awards and two Golden Globes. "It didn't insult you and it was supremely clever at it,"… "You might not know the finer points of US law but you got it and - much more - you got why it was so important to these characters."...

Attracting 17.6 million US viewers and winning a record nine Emmy awards for its first season, The West Wing was soon broadcast in countries including Japan and the UK. Programme-makers endeavoured to keep the show relevant by basing plots around ongoing or current political issues… The show had developed a loyal following by [2001] - even in the UK, where it lacked a permanent timeslot and moved from Channel 4 to E4 then More4.

West Wing was very favorably compared to the UK's wickedly funny Yes, Minister and its follow-on Yes Prime Minister (summary of both here) which dealt with inept ministerial appointees squired out of disaster by their White Hall bureaucrats in So farewell then, President Bartlet:

The West Wing, which will expire in May at the end of its seventh season, adopted the ginned-up patter of William Powell and Myrna Loy in the Thin Man pictures and brought that staccato rhythm to the sky-lit halls around the Oval Office. [The] West Wing was as earnest and high-minded as Yes, Minister was wickedly cynical. Decent, hard-working, noble, highly educated senior staffers walked the corridors at impossible speeds - "pedaconferencing" - clutching briefing books and deadpanning their way through the occasional nuclear bio-weapons attack.

In Yes, Minister, the conceit was that the civil service assistants recognised their superiors as hopeless twits and covered for them. In The West Wing, the young staffers, supervised by a wizened, indulgent chief of staff, serve a president who is a thatch-haired New England aristo, Nobel prize-winning economist, devoted father to three brilliant and beautiful daughters and equal partner to his wife (a doctor of wit and sophistication), devout Catholic, ace Latinist, student of American history and, above all, Good Decent Liberal, yet not damp-palmed. He could make the tough decisions (ie, drop a bomb when needed) but had the humanity to look sternly into the middle-distance - an expression signifying moral vexation - when lives were lost. In other words, he was Bill Clinton or John Kennedy without the personal issues. He was Truman with a finer mind and more polish. He was certainly not George W Bush - not one bit.

In between the riffs of snappy repartee, Bartlet's noble satraps would step to centre stage and unburden themselves of some of the most mind-bendingly un-ironic speeches about virtue and public life since Tacitus carried a briefcase…

Apparently, affection for the fantastical goodness of the Bartlet White House was not limited to American shores. During the last campaign season in England, I was in London to write a profile of Tony Blair for the New Yorker and asked the prime minister's chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, whether it was true that many of the same people at No 10 who had been influenced by the Clinton White House also had a thing for the Bartlet White House. Powell denied it. A day or two later, I was tagging along with the Blair campaign in Gravesend, when one of his press aides, Hillary Coffman, and I fell behind and nearly lost the prime minister. As she raced after her boss, Coffman said: "Do you remember that episode of West Wing when Josh and Toby miss the motorcade and they're left behind in Indiana? We can relate."

UK Reader responses to their choice of The best ever West Wing lamenting that "soon there will be nothing new to look forward to from the best president America never had" shows a remarkable attention to, and affection for, the US West Wing.

A UK blogger's comment was typical:

It is rare for television drama to be this sophisticated and this good even if it does suffer from the typical American moralising that infects all of their television output. The West Wing set the bar far higher than most US and indeed British television dramas… There is, however, a problem - and that’s credibility. I would love to believe that the people who staff the White House - and indeed the equivalent people here in the UK - are really that intelligent, thoughtful, fair-minded, devoted, hard working and just plain nice! Somehow, especially in the case of the current incumbents, I can’t help thinking that they fall short of that ideal by a seriously long way.

This English blogger spoke to West Wing's educational benefit on both sides of the Atlantic:

I love The West Wing - one of the few intelligent dramas to come from the US in years. Yes it is hopelessly naive (an intelligent, liberal, cultured US President - don't be daft!) and often went too "God Bless America!" for me, but it was sharp, witty and probably did more to educate the US about their political process than their school system and government combined.

While it is understandable that commercial issues foreclosed on what was conceived as an entertainment program, we should remember that we lost that diplomatic minister without portfolio who so tirelessly and quietly worked on America's behalf in distant lands.

Part 2 to follow: 24, the ruthless inquisitor

The West Wing Episode Guide

West Wing Transcripts
West Wing Searchable Episode Transcripts

The West Wing
Television Without Pity (TWOP)
Fan episode summaries continuing
here, here, here, here and here

Some Countries Remain Resistant to American Cultural Exports
New York Times
February 22, 2007

'24' gets a lesson in torture from the experts
Their advice: Make the scenes more realistic, not bloodier. And don't rely on tidy conclusions.
By Martin Miller
LA Times
February 13, 2007

Hollywood and the Spread of Anti-Americanism
by Jonathan Wellemeyer
Intelligence Squared U.S.,
December 20, 2006

The West Wing
Yellow Swordfish
July 2006

The best ever West Wing
By Steve Busfield / Television 11:39am
Organ Grinder
Guardian Unlimited
Monday January 23 2006

The West Wing (TV series)
page was last modified 09:23, 22 February 2007

The politics of the man behind "24."
Issue of 2007-02-19
Posted 2007-02-12

End of the alt oval office
The West Wing offered a shadow presidency that was even-handed in the Middle East. It will be missed.
Jonathan Freedland
July 28, 2006 12:38 PM | Printable version

Fans say goodbye to The West Wing
By Jonathan Beale
BBC News, Hollywood
Last Updated: Saturday, 13 May 2006, 08:46 GMT 09:46 UK

So farewell then, President Bartlet
The West Wing has been axed; its fans are devastated. The truth is, writes David Remnick, the world doesn't need Josiah Bartlet like it used to
The Guardian
Wednesday January 25, 2006

Final closure of The West Wing
BBC News
Last Updated: Monday, 23 January 2006, 15:03 GMT

The dark arts of good people: How popular culture negotiates 'spin' in NBC's The West Wing
by Kay Richardson
Journal of Sociolinguistics
Vol.10, Issue #1, p 52, 2006

The Roots of Torture
The road to Abu Ghraib began after 9/11, when Washington wrote new rules to fight a new kind of war. A NEWSWEEK investigation
By John Barry, Michael Hirsh and Michael Isikoff
Newsweek International
May 24, 2004

The West Wing: The American Presidency as Television Drama [REVIEW]
by Peter C. Rollins, John E. O'Connor, editors
Ink 19

The West Wing: The American Presidency as Television Drama
Edited by Peter C. Rollins and John E. O'Connor
Syracuse University Press

What would Jed Bartlet do?
Paul Hirst
Open Democracy
19 - 2 - 2003

The West Wing as a Pedagogical Tool
Staci L. Beavers
PS: Political Science & Politics
American Political Science Association
Vol 35, pp 213-216
Jun. 2002

The West Wing: President as Symbol
By Sarah E. Cavendish
Thesis Submitted to the Graduate College of Marshall University
Marshall University, Huntington, WV

The Real White House
Can a smart TV show inspire interest in public life in ways that real politics — brought to us by the real press corps — can’t? Absolutely. NBC’s The West Wing presents a truer, more human picture of the people behind the issues than most of today’s White House journalists.
Brill’s Content
March 01, 2000

Gordon Housworth

InfoT Public  Strategic Risk Public  Terrorism Public  
In order to post a message, you must be logged in
message date / author

There are no comments available.

In order to post a message, you must be logged in