Magical Thinking: So compelling was Aaron Sorkin's script for the hit TV series The West Wing that it was easy to forget that "President" Jed Bartlett was a right-wing "New Democrat" in the mould of Bill Clinton. Many Labour and Alliance staffers (some of them now MPs) were won over by Sorkin's hard-headed 1999 definitions of feasible politics. Thirteen years after the series first aired, and in spite of the Global Financial Crisis comprehensively discrediting "Clintonomics", they remain more West Wing than left-wing.
THE SAME YEAR New Zealanders elected the Labour-Alliance Government, 1999, NBC launched Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing. The fast-moving, fast-talking television drama series soon became compulsory viewing for Labour and Alliance staffers. Sorkin’s intelligent, razor-sharp dialogue revealed a world of politics very different from that portrayed by the cynical members of the Press Gallery. “President” Jed Bartlett’s staffers offered much, much more than the usual smarts and wisecracks. What transformed the day-to-day activities of characters like Josh Lyman, “Ceejay” Cregg, Sam Seaborn and Toby Ziegler into such compelling television was that they were motivated by real and passionately articulated principles. Sorkin had done the seemingly impossible, he had made back-room politics sexy.
The model for The West Wing was, of course, the Clinton White House. As the first “Baby Boomer” President, Clinton brought a looser (as it turned out a much looser) and more informal style to the administrative warren which gave Sorkin’s series its name. The fictional Bartlett (played superbly by Martin Sheen) may have hailed from straight-laced New Hampshire (a far cry from Clinton’s sleazy Arkansas) but viewers warmed to the younger characters who were as “cool” as they were competent. Characters who commented on blogs and confronted protesters – not with billy-clubs and tear gas, but with weapons fashioned out of (shock, horror) facts and figures. These were people who could command arguments.
But among all the “walk and talk” tracking shots and fast-talking riffs on everything from Middle Eastern politics to stem cell research, it was easy to miss the underlying political identity of the “Bartlett Administration”. This was not a collection of New Deal Democrats (except, maybe, for Toby Ziegler). President Josiah ‘Jed’ Bartlett was a Nobel Laureate in Economics – neoliberal economics. Sorkin’s politics were and are the “liberal” politics of the so-called “New Democrats” and their “moderate” Democratic Leadership Council. In short, Sorkin was channelling the Clintons’ politics: Bill’s and Hillary’s.
It’s the politics that gave the world NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement) and declared “the era of big government” to be “over”. The politics that put an end to “welfare as we have known it”. Sorkin's Bartlett Administration is a paean to the virtues of Anthony Gidden’s “Third Way” – presented to the world by a master screenwriter whose persuasive powers not even Tony Blair’s master manipulator, Alastair Campbell, could equal. There was a darker side too. On matters of “National Security”, Bartlett’s chief-of-staff, Leo McGarry, was as hard-line as Sorkin could imagine: an avenging American Eagle in a White House briefing-room already bristling with hawks.
Such were the role models that Labour’s and Alliance’s young staffers attempted to emulate. And Sorkin’s pithy justifications for everything from fiscal responsibility to free-trade were to leave a deep impression. When the young men and women who filled the offices around Helen Clark and Jim Anderton (Grant Robertson, Jacinda Ardern, Chris Hipkins, John and Josie Pagani) recall the exemplars of “modern social democracy” do they think only of Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and Gerhard Schroeder, or are Jed Bartlett, Josh Lyman and “Ceejay” Gregg also in their minds?
That The West Wing was able to present itself as a progressive drama was only because the Right (especially in the USA) had become so utterly bereft of anything even remotely resembling principle. That, and a long economic boom which appeared to confirm everything its neoliberal architects preached and predicted. Helen Clark and her Finance Minister, Dr Michael Cullen, floated on these economic updrafts for nearly nine years: long enough for those who worked on their staffs to become convinced that while the “reforms” of the fourth Labour government may have been poorly sequenced, and much too brutally imposed, they were, in the context of their time, the right thing to do.
Today, the grim legacy of the magical political and economic thinking that Aaron Sorkin so brilliantly gave voice to in The West Wing lies all around us. The Third Way we bought from Clinton and Blair, Clark and Cullen turned out to be a pup. The Fed’s credit-fuelled boom turned to bust. The middle class maxed-out its credit cards. The working-class fell off a cliff. Social inequality spreads through the body-politic like a deadly, metastasizing cancer. Only the rich are smiling.
Sorkin, himself, has recognised the shift. His new television series, The Newsroom, lays bare the moral and material legacies bequeathed to America by the political-economy of his West Wing characters. Tellingly, the smart, sassy and principled heroes of this, Sorkin’s latest paean to the faltering American dream, are no longer politicians – they’re journalists.
Here in New Zealand, however, the young staffers of 1999 have become the middle-aged politicians and senior advisers of 2012. And although their waistlines have widened, the ideological path followed by these ageing West Wing fans remains as straight and narrow as a Jed Bartlett budget. Their understanding of the electorate is still rooted in the expert analyses of poll data and focus groups. (Sorkin’s satire was never sharper than when he made Joey Lucas, Jed Bartlett’s hot-shot pollster, deaf). Worst of all, the economic and social arguments these unreconstructed "utopian realists" continue to hurl against their critics (both Right and Left) all come from the era of dot-com bubbles and sub-prime mortgages.
Arguments that sound more West Wing than left-wing.
This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.