The West Wing is a phenomenal television political drama that aired from 1999 to 2006. In addition to remarkable writing and an exceptional cast, the show explored numerous noteworthy political issues during its run. The show was often before its time in that the issues it addressed were not only topical then, but are still relevant today.
Today, fifteen years after the shows’ pilot episode, I would like to examine some of the political issues approached in the series and see where they stand at present. I must admit that although this piece is written primarily in an effort to re-examine political issues and events of days past, both fictional and real, it is also written in part to share my love of The West Wing with the world.
For those who have not watched the series yet, this is your warning that some spoilers lie ahead in this post.
Where The West Wing Won
In many instances, political issues addressed in The West Wing played out much more positively in the fictional world of the early 2000’s than in our real world.
The Israel-Palestine Conflict
The West Wing: Season 6, Episode 2: “The Birnam Wood” (2004) – President Bartlet invites the Palestinian Chairman and the Israeli Prime Minister to join him and his senior staff at Camp David in an effort to initiate peace talks between the two leaders. After five days of heated and reluctant negotiations, a deal is reached and a peace plan is put in place, thanks to President Bartlet’s persistence. The peace plan requires that a United States peacekeeping force be deployed to the region, specifically in Gaza. Back on The Hill, there is much controversy over the cost of the US peacekeeping force, both in terms of financial costs as well as the cost of lives, but ultimately, the force is deployed. The region continues to see some conflict, but at much lower levels than without the peacekeeping force, and for the first time in decades, the region sees glimmers of hope for an ongoing peace.
The Real World: July 16, 2014 – Ten years later, the Israel-Palestine conflict has flared up once again. After the June 12 abduction and killing of three Israeli teenagers, allegedly committed by Hamas, and the apparent revenge killing of a Palestinian teenager by extremist Jews, tensions in the region reached their breaking point. Both Israel and Palestine have launched military operations and have been firing hundreds of rockets into the other’s territory. Rockets fired into Israel from Gaza have killed no one in Israel, thanks to Israel’s “Iron Dome” missile defense system, which is in part funded by US dollars, while the Palestinian death toll from Israeli rockets has reached 185. To add to the brutality of this clearly uneven death toll, some calculations show 77% of those killed in Palestine thus far have been civilians, although Israel claims that it is trying everything “humanly possible” to avoid killing civilians. Today, after Hamas rejected an Egyptian-proposed ceasefire agreement, Israel has resumed its attacks on the Gaza strip. With Israel threatening an offensive ground invasion of Gaza, the conflict could escalate to new levels. Meanwhile, the death toll will continue to increase for the foreseeable future.
The West Wing: Season 2, Episode 9: “Galileo V” (2000) – To shift gears to a less distressing topic, the episode “Galileo V” focuses on a NASA mission and its anticipated landing of an unmanned spacecraft, Galileo V, on Mars. After a system failure, the spacecraft is lost and the mission failed. When the Chief of Staff’s daughter, Mallory, challenges Sam Seaborn, the Deputy Communications Director, to defend NASA spending as opposed to spending tax dollars on food, housing, and education for citizens here on earth and in the US, Sam retorts, saying, “There are a lot of hungry people in the world, Mal, and none of them are hungry because we went to the moon. None of them are colder, and certainly none of them are dumber ’cause we went to the moon.” When Mallory further challenges Sam asking, “And we went to the moon. Do we really have to go to Mars?” Sam replies with a beautiful speech: “Yes. ‘Cause it’s next. For we came out of the cave, and we looked over the hill, and we saw fire. And we crossed the ocean, and we pioneered the West, and we took to the sky. The history of man is hung on the timeline of exploration, and this is what’s next.”
Season 5, Episode 13: “The Warfare of Genghis Khan” (2004) – Four years later, NASA officials attempt to convince Josh Lyman, the Deputy Chief of Staff, that the administration and Congress should authorize funding for a manned mission to Mars. Josh, at first, dismisses the idea, citing NASA’s recent failures, bad press, and high costs. However, after an attractive female NASA administrator takes Josh stargazing, his enthusiasm for exploration is rekindled and he readdresses the idea of a manned mission. The episode ends with Josh discussing an argument, which favors the manned mission, with his skeptical assistant while the viewers see a shot of the President watching a satellite feed of a nuclear test, “juxtaposing the possibilities made accessible by modern technology for both innovation and advancement, as well as for violence and destruction.” Lyman’s argument, which ends the episode, goes:
“Everyone hates us. We’re the most dominant nation on earth. But too often the face of our economic superiority is a corporate imperialism, our technological dominance shown by Smart bombs and Predator drones. We could do something else. Something generous and uplifting for all humankind. We could send the first representatives from Earth, to walk on another planet. We could land people on Mars…Voyager, in case it’s ever encountered by extra-terrestrials, is carrying photos of life on Earth, greetings in 55 languages and a collection of music from Gregorian chants to Chuck Berry, including “Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground” by ’20s bluesman Blind Willie Johnson, whose stepmother blinded him when he was seven by throwing lye in is his eyes after his father had beat her for being with another man. He died, penniless, of pneumonia after sleeping bundled in wet newspapers in the ruins of his house that burned down. But his music just left the solar system.”
The Real World: Today – Today, in 2014, Americans can boast that in 2004 they successfully landed two rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, on Mars. However, on August 31, 2011, the NASA space shuttle program ended and government officials halted the possibilities of further government funded space exploration. As of now, Blind Willie Johnson’s music will not enter space in the hands of a NASA astronaut. Perhaps if there had been an attractive NASA administrator meeting with the White House’s then Deputy Chief of Staff, things could have turned out differently.
The Real World Ain’t All That Bad
In other instances, political issues played out as encouragingly, if not more encouragingly in our real world than in the fictional world of President Bartlet.
Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell
The West Wing: Season 1, Episode 19: “Let Bartlet Be Bartlet” (2000) – President Bartlet commands his staff to “dangle their feet in the water” and start taking meetings on the issue of repealing the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy in the military. While in a meeting with representatives and top military administrators, it becomes clear that Sam and Toby, the White House officials, are the only ones in the room who have any interest in repealing the policy. Arguing in favor of a repeal, Sam cites a report that documents the numerous discharges of gay military members under the policy. After one of the administrators points out that many of the discharges occurred after members made voluntary statements about their sexuality, Sam counters with a harsh reply by saying:
“And a lot of these are not voluntary statements, not by any definition given by any civilian court in this country. It is not a voluntary statement when it’s given to a psychotherapist, as in the case of former Marine corporal David Blessing. It is not a voluntary statement when it’s made into a personal diary, as in the case of former West Point cadet Nicole Garrison. It is not when it’s made after being asked, as in the case of master chief officer Diane Kelli. And it is not when it is coerced out of a service member through fear…through intimidation, through death threats, in terms of criminal prosecution, as in the case of former Air Force Major Bob Kiddis, former Marine gunnery sergeant Kevin Keys, and four sailors aboard the U.S.S. Essex.”
The scene ends with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Fitzwallace, who happens to be African American, entering the room and the military administrators immediately standing at attention. Fitzwallace breaks their silence by asking them what they think about gays in the military. The dialogue goes:
FITZWALLACE: What do you think?
MAJOR THOMPSON: Sir, we’re here to help the White House form a possible-
FITZWALLACE: I know. I’m asking you what you think.
MAJOR TATE: Sir, we’re not prejudiced toward homosexuals.
FITZWALLACE: You just don’t want to see them serving in the Armed Forces?
MAJOR TATE: No sir, I don’t.
FITZWALLACE: ‘Cause they oppose a threat to unit discipline and cohesion.
MAJOR TATE: Yes sir.
FITZWALLACE: That’s what I think too. I also think the military wasn’t designed to be an instrument of social change.
MAJOR TATE: Yes sir.
FITZWALLACE: The problem with that is that what they were saying to me 50 years ago. Blacks shouldn’t serve with Whites. It would disrupt the unit. You know what? It did disrupt the unit. The unit got over it. The unit changed. I’m an admiral in the U.S. Navy and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff…Beat that with a stick.
After this scene, the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy does not get addressed again in the series.
The Real World: September 20, 2011 – Eleven years later, on September 20, 2011, the policy was repealed under the Obama Administration. Although public opinion at the time was split on the issue, the long-term results of repealing the policy have been very positive. Many did not have faith that the military environment would be able to support and thrive with openly homosexual service members. In 2011 Senator John McCain insisted that ending the gay ban would do “great damage” to the military, and he was proven wrong. Studies undertaken in 2012, one year after the policy was repealed, prove that the repeal actually helped the military. “In one survey, more than 750 active duty troops were asked three months after repeal about their morale, housing, perception of officer and troop quality, and overall quality of life—factors considered key components of military readiness. All the figures were the same or slightly higher than in a parallel survey administered in the months before repeal, meaning readiness did not drop after repeal.”
Supreme Court Nominations
The West Wing: Season 1, Episode 9: “The Short List” (1999) – President Bartlet is deciding upon his first Supreme Court nominee. After internally and informally deciding upon Judge Harrison as his nominee, President Bartlet is alerted of a scandalous memo written by Harrison on the issue of privacy from the government. Harrison, while being questioned by President Bartlet, stands by his shocking stance and, soon after, President Bartlet decides that Harrison is not the right man for the job. This leads President Bartlet towards another name on his short list: Judge Robert Mendoza, a man who is the complete opposite of the Ivy League educated and privileged Judge Harrison. Mendoza is a Hispanic Federal District Judge in New York and a Brooklyn native who had previously been a member of the New York City Police Department where he simultaneously worked a NYPD desk job after getting shot in the line of duty while taking night classes towards a law degree. He is a true example of picking yourself up by your bootstraps and realizing the American Dream. In his first meeting with the President, Mendoza is informed of the news that not only is he on the President’s short list, but that he is in fact President Bartlet’s nominee for the Supreme Court. Mendoza is very surprised to hear the news but honorably accepts the nomination.
The Real World: May 2009 – A decade later, in May 2009, President Barack Obama nominated Judge Sonia Sotomayor, a female Hispanic judge and a Bronx native, to the Supreme Court. Her nomination was confirmed by the Senate in August 2009 by a vote of 68–31. Sotomayor is the Supreme Court’s first Hispanic justice and the Court’s third female justice. Although it took another ten years, a Hispanic justice was finally confirmed into the Supreme Court.