A Time for American Heroes: The West Wing

“They say a good man can’t get elected president. I don’t believe that. Do you?”

This line is just one of many great moments from my favorite television series, Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing. Yet it summarizes the show beautifully. The West Wing is all about faith… faith that good people can make a difference.

Jed Bartlett, an economics professor from the backwoods of New Hampshire, agrees to run for president only because his best friend, the wily politician Leo McGarry, believes in him. Bartlett’s shoestring campaign attracts real Washington talent, the best and brightest the political establishment offers, simply because they believe in him. Once Bartlett wins the Oval Office, he and his team work tirelessly to change America for the better… because they believe they can.

I know what you’re thinking. That’s not how America works. And you’re not exactly wrong. Twenty years later, a show about decent politicians “doing the right thing” amid broad popular support seems naïve. Maybe this isn’t our reality in America today. Maybe it never was our reality. Maybe it only exists in the rarefied domain of Aaron-Sorkin-Land, where snappy dialogue and winning optimism get served up daily, and where major policy decisions get made during brisk walks down the hallway. (Okay, I admit it. The “walk and talk” scenes are a tad cheesy.)

But if it’s a fantasy, it’s a pretty good one.

The West Wing is not a show about perfect characters, despite its idealistic tone. President Bartlett is egotistical and occasionally blinded by power. Leo McGarry is ruthless and proud of it. Josh Lyman is a lonely workaholic. So is CJ Cregg. Toby Ziegler is a bitter divorcé with a perfectionist streak. Sam Seaborn, to put it kindly, was standing behind the door when the Lord was handing out common sense. But at the end of the day, these men and women hold themselves to an extraordinarily high standard of public service. Honor, integrity, justice, and compassion mark their actions. For once, these politicians don’t just talk about American values. They live them.

“Every time we think we’ve measured our capacity to reach a challenge,” Jed Bartlett tells a grieving nation in one of my favorite episodes, “we look up and we’re reminded that capacity may well be limitless. This is a time for American heroes, and we reach for the stars.” Inflated rhetoric? Perhaps. But sometimes that’s exactly what we need. We need faith in a higher purpose before we’ll stand up and fight. Faith is the fuel that powers change.

Which is why, dated and naïve though it may seem, The West Wing still inspires me. Maybe the American political system is broken beyond repair. But if we can fix it, I’m pretty sure people too cynical to even try won’t fix it.

I always come back to that little moment between Leo and Jed on a cold street on a dark New Hampshire night. Jed, frustrated by a hopeless campaign battle, wants to know why Leo dragged him into this mess.

“Because I’m tired of it,” Leo growls. “Year after year after year after year, having to choose between the lesser of who cares? Of getting myself excited about a candidate who can speak in complete sentences. Of setting the bar so low, I can hardly look at it.”

Leo McGarry isn’t exactly the character you would expect to hold out for moral integrity in public office. He’s an earthy Chicago Irishman, fully comfortable with the wheeling-and-dealing style of politics his city is famous for. (If he ever gets you alone in a back room with a couple cigars and a few seemingly innocuous policy proposals… may God have mercy on your soul.) But on that cold winter night, Leo is the one to look Jed Bartlett in the eye and tell him the country needs his idealism, his principles, and his moral courage. “They say a good man can’t get elected president. I don’t believe that.”

Do you?

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jessica Prescott writes books under the name Katie Hanna and blogs under the name Charles Baker Harris (confusing, she readily admits). You can find out more about Jessica, her pet projects, and her obsession with Doctor Who at I’m Charles Baker Harris (And I Can Read).

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