As I am watching and writing about these episodes of The West Wing, the January 6th hearings are going on with the U.S. Senate. For those readers in the far future, recovering these writings off of a charred hard drive discovered among the ruins of the post-nuclear wastelands: First of all, congrats on making it this far. Second, the January 6th hearings are a lukewarm response to an attack on the U.S. Capitol on the day votes were counted for the 2020 Presidential election. The President at the time, Donald Trump, and a cabal of reactionaries & fascists agitated a crowd that had gathered into trying to kill the Congressional body and Trump’s own VP, Michael Pence. You would think these hearings would be a powerful tool to take down this cadre still working to overthrow the government to establish a neo-Confederacy.
Throughout this affair, Democrats go out of their way to talk about the need for a “strong Republican party” and are doing everything they can to connect what happened solely with Donald Trump and not the larger body of the Republican Party. This won’t surprise some people who have woken up to the idea that American power is housed with institutions, and blame always goes to individuals. You hear talk about “corruption” within systems, implying that the institutions would function perfectly without that interference. Corruption IS the institution in almost every case: Capitalism, Corporate power, the Police State, etc. They are corrupt from their moment of existence.
The Media works in tandem with the Capitalist powers to shape Americans’ perceptions of themselves, their history, and the planet to such destructive ends. Myth-building is integral to that process, imbuing an institution like The Office of the President with Spielberg-ian magic, making parts of the machine appear to exist outside standard definitions, the realm of the mystic. You hear this in the opening theme of the West Wing, a John Williams-like score, evoking Copeland’s Fanfare for the Common Man, a somewhat fetishistic (fascistic?) move to place the institution above critique.
While watching the West Wing, I imagined the sort of show I’d like to watch about the U.S. President. I want a serious hour drama about a completely corrupt White House, one where we watch the complete decline of a central character who joins the administration with some enthusiasm, only to watch as their colleagues and even the President himself is shown to be such craven, rotten people. Now, such a show would never be allowed to be made in the United States. The only reason Veep exists is that it couches its stories in comedy, which softens the blow and can be excused as an exaggeration of reality. I want a show where we see the President as complicit in mass murder through American foreign policy. As long as our Media is incestuously entwined with the weapons industry through their commercial support, we will never see such a show. So instead, we get Aaron Sorkin and this pablum.
17 People (Season 2, Episode 18)
Original airdate: April 4th, 2001
Written by Aaron Sorkin
Directed by Alex Graves
Previously, the Vice President has been found to be running opinion polling on running for President in the next election. Comms director Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff) is deeply confused and feels he’s not being allowed in on important information about President Bartlet (Martin Sheen). A confrontation happens in the Oval Office one night, where Bartlet and Chief of Staff Leo McGarry (John Spencer) reveal that the President has multiple sclerosis and only 16 people now know. There’s a lot of tension around this because many of these people have been asked to hide the truth or lie about Bartlet’s condition. Meanwhile, Sam (Rob Lowe), Josh (Bradley Whitford), and Donna (Janel Moloney) are staying late with other staff members to write jokes for the President’s speech at the upcoming Correspondents’ Dinner. This leads to a back and forth between Sam and Ainsley Haynes (Emily Procter), White House Associate Counsel, about the Equal Rights Amendment. And see, it’s ironic because Sam argues in favor of women’s rights while Ainsley argues in an extremely pedantic manner against it.
To my horror, as I looked up different takes on this episode, trying to get a sense of how it was received and currently viewed, I chanced across seventeenpeople.com, a website devoted to this single episode. It struck me as liberal QAnon; a bizarre emotional devotion to a piece of abject propaganda designed not to inform but to obscure is disturbing. The West Wing feeds the fantasy that centrists and liberals want the reality of America to be. I certainly understand aspiration and wanting positive media, but there’s a point where it’s no longer quaint and veers into dangerously misinformative. If you want to argue from a dramatist perspective about the staging and craft of the episode, fine, I wasn’t particularly impressed, but if that’s your thing, go off. But if you want to somehow claim the themes of this episode and this series represent a positive, good ideology, that’s where we part ways.
Ainsley Hayes was a character introduced to the West Wing in Season 2, stuck around for Season 3, left the series, and made an appearance in Season 7. She exists as part of Sorkin’s personal fetish of the 1940s Hepburn/Tracy-style banter relationship. Sam appears opposite Ainsley on a political debate show. Bartlet is so impressed with her sense of “civic duty” that despite her clearly being a far-right conservative, he hires her as part of his legal counsel. When asked about agreeing to Bartelt’s offer, Ainsley expresses the desire to be a part of something beyond partisan structures and is willing to sacrifice her future with the Republican Party. Lovely ideas; it’s just a complete load of shit.
Right now, there is an effort by some liberals, particularly in the pundit class, to prop up Rep. Liz Cheney as “one of the good ones.” Their reasoning is that Cheney hasn’t pretended that Trump’s behavior and actions post-2020 election were acceptable. Ignore that she voted for policies he supported 99% of the time, policies that continued America’s desire to harm people at home and abroad. There’s some willing disbelief happening here, ignoring what a craven political player Cheney is. I mean, she learned from the best. Her pop was part of the first successful electoral coup in American history, stealing the 2000 election away for George W. Bush. I don’t let Al Gore and his team off for their feckless, cowardly decisions at the time.
In 2013, Liz Cheney faced some pushback over LGBTQ rights. Her sister, and Dick’s daughter, Mary, is openly gay and now married to her partner. When the pressure of polls got to Liz, she turned on her sister on national television, saying that she loved Mary but didn’t believe Mary had fundamental human rights because she was gay. Liz Cheney will say whatever she needs to advance her political career. She can see the true believers of the GOP are taking over the party, the mad masses who have been agitated by the GOP leadership for years. I would not be surprised if, in the next five years, Cheney becomes a Democrat as the leadership of that party seems too eager to embrace her at the moment.
The fantasy of searing banter with a blonde, svelte Conservative Ann Coulter-alike might provide Sorkin with the arousal he needs to perform in bed, but for the rest of us with open eyes, it is incredibly gross. This distorts the reality of what Conservatism materially represents, a regressive, reactionary hate-filled ideology that has and is currently hollowing out the minds of their impressionable followers, my mother being one of them. So, I don’t extend any praise to Sorkin for this highly disgusting character and the warped idea it propagated in the culture.
The writer thinks he’s doing something charming & clever by having Ainsley argue against the ERA while Sam argues in favor. Her view is that an amendment already existed that gave her rights as a woman. Therefore the ERA was unnecessary, and she’d rather other groups not represented get rights. That line of logic implies there is some finite tank of Freedom Juice that we can only dip into until it runs out. It’s an entirely absurd argument, and who honestly gives a shit about redundant laws. I think the problems in our society do not stem from two laws saying the same thing and more from the fact that America’s entire justice system is imbalanced in favor of the wealthy & powerful (and, more often than not, white men).
Along the way, Donna continues to be mistreated by Sorkin-avatar Josh Lyman. Their whole relationship is clearly inappropriate, and I hope that H.R. would have stepped in at this point in real life. Unfortunately, it’s not likely, and Sorkin never allows the dark side of this sort of boss-employee sexual relationship to be shown. In his world, this is completely fine and good. Reality begs to differ. Meanwhile, Toby argues in such a ridiculous manner about following the rules in yet another episode where honest political policy is not addressed, and the drama hinges on the personal drama of Bartlet. Since letting “Bartlet be Bartlet,” these episodes have removed themselves from any meaningful political dialogue.
Two Cathedrals (Season 2, Episode 22)
Original airdate: May 16th, 2001
Written by Aaron Sorkin
Directed by Thomas Schlamme
Season Two was all about Bartlet’s M.S. diagnosis and how it would affect a potential re-election bid. Previously, it was revealed that the beloved Dolores Landingham (Kathryn Joosten) died in a car accident. Throughout this episode, Bartlet has two big things weighing on his mind: his decision on whether to run again with his diagnosis & his memories of Landingham, who he met when she was working for his father and the future President was just a student at boarding school. Despite anything happening in the background, this is a Bartlet-centered episode and is also the season two finale.
There are some problems arising in the background. The Justice Department wants more money to continue its prosecution of the tobacco industry, which Bartlet grants them. There’s also news that the Haitian army has besieged the American embassy in that island nation. We never go there; it’s the show’s tradition to present these stories from the people working in the White House. But, when you bring up Haiti, especially throwaway lines about undemocratically elected presidents, I will have to do some pushback.
Haiti has been one of the many victims of the United States’ interference in the Caribbean. My wife is from Puerto Rico, and through her, I have learned a lot about the region, as well as reading on the subject. During the French Revolution, enslaved Haitians and free people of color launched their own rebellion against the French imperialists that controlled the island. After 12 years, Napoleon’s forces were forced out, and the Haitian people won their independence. They were the first country in the Americas to abolish slavery and the only nation in the hemisphere’s history to have a successful slave rebellion. If you know anything about imperialism/colonialism, then you know such an act would not go unpunished by the people in power outside of Haiti.
Internal conflicts arose, often stoked by outside forces, leading Haiti to split, with half of the island now named the Dominican Republic. The first century of Haiti’s existence was a major struggle due to political instability caused by a refusal from the international community to bring Haiti into their systems of commerce and France leveling a crippling debt against the country, enforced with the threat of military violence. The goal was to intentionally sabotage Haiti to make an example of any other slave factions thinking of rebelling. The United States came to take over Haiti in 1915 after the National City Bank of New York convinced President Woodrow Wilson to take control of the nation’s finances. This occupation lasted until 1934 and only served to create more chaos in Haiti’s political system.
In 1956, Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier was elected President of Haiti. Duvalier was a dictator who used his political power for his and his associates’ gain, murdering rivals and causing tremendous harm. Duvalier was also allied with Cuban President Fulgencio Batista, another cruel dictator who was overthrown during the Cuban Revolution. Duvalier saw that new Cuban President Fidel Castro might make the nearby island a safe haven for Haitian political dissidents and tried to woo the man with a few political acts, but Castro knew better. He put his full support behind the anti-Duvalier activists. Duvalier responded, as all reactionaries do, with a purge of Communists in the country, which led to severed Cuban relations for the next 38 years. Duvalier’s son, nicknamed “Baby Doc,” would take power and continue the suffering. The United States, meanwhile, saw this as beneficial; chaos in any part of the global South always equals the States expanding its power & control.
I could spend all day talking about the history of Haiti here; it’s dense and complex and always peppered with interference from outside nations, mainly the United States, in the present day. The recent assassination of President Moïse and the attempted murder of his wife in July 2021 have shone more light on this horrible relationship. Many of the men involved in the plot to kill the President were former employees of the U.S. government and had likely used that power to become associated with organized crime in the country. This is a common theme in Haiti’s history, the United States fomenting chaos and not allowing the government to work through growing pains to reach its next stage of development. You can’t intentionally malnourish a child and then blame them when they grow to be sickly & lacking nutrients.
So when a show like The West Wing casually portrays the Haitians as the violent savages as this background plot in Two Cathedrals does, it pisses me off. It continues to harm not only Haitian people but anyone watching the show’s perception of the history of that culture and the American government’s direct guilt in keeping it that way.
The main story here is taken up by more of Bartlet’s personal problems, used to paint a horrifically simplistic portrait of power in the United States. Bartelt is at his most messianic so far, seen through the eyes of a young Mrs. Landingham as simply destined to be a leader. That elitist thinking helps propagate the divide Americans see between themselves and power. If you are part of the elite, you want ordinary people to see themselves as separate from those who can wield power. Only Great (White) Men who attend prestigious boarding schools and subsequently over-hyped Ivy League institutions can ever be President. Trump went to all those places; I guess he was destined, too, right?