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The personal politics of ‘The West Wing’

From left, Martin Sheen as President Josiah “Jed” Bartlet, Richard Schiff as Communications Director Toby Ziegler and Rob Lowe as Deputy Communications Director Sam Seaborn on “The West Wing.” (Steve Shapiro/NBC)
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Summer is no longer the cultural wasteland it once was. But even though excellent television is now a year-round phenomenon, and Memorial Day brings weekly blockbuster brawls to the box office, the sultriness of July and August still affords a little space to ruffle through the archives and catch up on things I’ve missed. For me, that has meant remedying my error in dismissing AMC’s excellent drama “Halt and Catch Fire” and blazing through “The West Wing,” a show I caught periodically during its original run but never quite watched in a sustained way.

As I make my way through the second season, it’s striking how Aaron Sorkin’s ability to create dynamic characters lifts the “The West Wing” above the groaning sexism and Great Man condescension that would swamp his HBO show “The Newsroom” and prevents the series from being bogged down by the particularities of Sorkin’s cultural tastes, which would do so much to make “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip,” his series about a late-night TV show, feel so much less sharp than Tina Fey’s “30 Rock,” which debuted the same year.

But even more than the balance of the charms and flaws on “The West Wing,” the most interesting thing about the early seasons of the show might be the way it approaches policy. Sorkin’s characters have worldviews, but more than than anything else, their positions on policy are — at least initially — determined by their personal attachments. It’s an ingenious way to make viewers feel attached to policy debates. But it also lets the Bartlet administration, which was never terribly liberal in the first place, be guided much more by emotion than any particular partisan theory of government.

The series’ consistency on this point is impressive. In the first season, President Josiah “Jed” Bartlet (Martin Sheen) seriously contemplates attacking the Damascus airport, even though to do so would risk civilian casualties, after the Syrian military shoots down a plane that happens to be carrying Bartlet’s new doctor, who is a new father. The result is a more measured strike that affirms the rather anodyne idea that when attacked, the United States should retaliate, but responsibly and strategically.

Donna Moss (Janel Moloney), who is often presented as egregiously dumb so that characters can explain things to her, becomes fixated on the idea that a budget surplus means that she personally deserves a tax refund. Any real discussion of tax policy or Democrats’ lack of trust that voters will spend their money wisely is subsumed by screwball banter.

Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff) gets concerned with the treatment of homeless veterans when a dead man is found wearing a coat Toby donated to Goodwill; later, his brother conveniently turns out to be an astronaut imperiled by a dangerous mission. It’s not much of a risk to say that homelessness is a tragedy or that space exploration is a risk; it’s much harder to determine what the remedy for homelessness ought to be and who should pay for it, or to defend an investment plan that will continue to push humanity into the final frontier against other, more immediately pressing priorities.

After white supremacists try to kill Charlie Young (Dulé Hill), who is dating the president’s daughter Zoey (Elisabeth Moss), Toby’s feelings of vulnerability lead him to propose legislation that would crack down on hate groups, no matter the civil liberties implications and his political priors. It’s also notable that, while “The West Wing” has discussions of how the census affects African Americans, a Mexican-American Supreme Court nominee and a heated debate over reparations, it’s a personal relationship and reflective racist disgust over it that prompt the attack, not any policy decision.

The characters often hash out policy decisions through intensely personal conversations. Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford) spends much of a day debating slavery reparations with a potential presidential appointee, but their discussion means neither character takes much of a position on more viable prospects for reform that might define their politics more clearly. A debate about commuting a death sentence mostly plays out between Bartlet and his priest, Toby and his rabbi, and Josh and a pollster; it’s much more of a story about their personal styles than the American criminal justice system. Gay rights issues get hashed out in discussions between Bartlet and a major donor who has the power to embarrass him, and between staffers and the grieving parents of a child killed in a hate-crime attack; in both cases, the debates come down to the feelings of the people directly affected by policy and the pragmatism of the White House. In the second season, Bartlet decides to let a group of Chinese Christians seek asylum in the United States because he’s impressed by the faith of one of their number.

The characters’ emotions have a particular influence on the positions they take about media ethics and what’s fair game for personal attacks. When Josh’s tribal distaste for a Christian leader spills over into him insulting her on national television, he gets irritated by the coverage of his meltdown. Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe) continues to see Laurie (Lisa Edelstein, in one of her many turn-of-the-century Jewish sexpot roles), a George Washington Law student who is paying for her degree by working as an escort, even though it is reckless and tempts the tabloid press; his rationale is that he has a right to persuade her to stop doing sex work. When a conservative congressman launches incendiary allegations about drug use at the White House as a way to undermine Leo McGarry (John Spencer), who battled serious addiction during his tenure as labor secretary, Josh and Sam go to war more out of affection for Leo than for any underlying principle.

There are certainly good arguments to be made that political officials ought to be able to be more candid; that public servants’ private lives should be off-limits as long as they’re abiding by the law and performing their duties at a high level; and that in politics, we should be more willing to treat addiction as a treatable disease than as a permanent moral stain. But in a lot of these plotlines, arguing for these principles through these particular people actually weakens Sorkin’s arguments.

Adopting these more tolerant rules would certainly protect bad or abrasive behavior, but Josh’s right to be rude on television and Sam’s prerogative to provide moral lectures to a young woman aren’t actually the best arguments “The West Wing” could make for media discretion. (That would be the entire character of Danny Concannon, the Washington Post reporter played by Timothy Busfield, and my favorite fictional colleague.) And while Leo comes across as a dandy boss on “The West Wing,” and the congressman pursuing him is portrayed as a moralistic toad, it’s not actually unreasonable to ask whether a Cabinet official was impaired or taking large amounts of time off while performing his job.

The end result is a show that simultaneously venerates personal character as a sign of goodness and wisdom in policymaking, while complaining about the media’s focus on personality. Judge Roberto Mendoza (Edward James Olmos) is virtuous because he doesn’t use a wrongful arrest as a way to make a point about racial profiling, even though that might have opened up a powerful conversation about policing. Vice President John Hoynes (Tim Matheson) is treated as an antagonist because of his personal style and his lack of gratitude to Bartlet, not because he’s wrong on the substance of the issues. (The show occasionally acknowledges, grudgingly, that he is correct.)

This is a terrific formula if you want to create a bipartisan fantasy that attracts viewers across the political spectrum with the image of a character like Republican lawyer Ainsley Hayes (Emily Procter) going to work for the Bartlet administration and declaring to her conservative friends that “The people that I have met have been extraordinarily qualified, their intent is good. Their commitment is true, they are righteous, and they are patriots.” It’s easy to say something like that that if personality matters more than policy — and if the ostensibly Democratic administration a Republican goes to work for immediately starts championing her policy proposals.

But it’s not a very good way to get at Washington’s true problem: that on profound and fundamental levels, people disagree about where the country ought to go and the paths we ought to take to get there. No amount of Jed Bartlet delivering a withering setdown, Sam Seaborn coming up with a soaring piece of oratory on the fly or Toby Ziegler walking out of a meeting can close that gap. Good men — and on “The West Wing,” it’s always men — can have bad, or even malign ideas.

Note: This piece initially misstated where Laurie was enrolled in law school. Thanks to Mari Manoogian for the catch.