Saturday's annual White House Correspondents Association dinner began with a video short featuring the cast of "The West Wing" and real White House press secretary Joe Lockhart. Later, the show got a plug during President Clinton's speech. And after dinner, the "Wing" cast was feted as guests of honor at the Vanity Fair memorial after party, now sponsored by Michael Bloomberg. In the course of one night, "The West Wing" cemented itself as the most-talked-about television program in the nation's capital.
In less than one season, the quasi-fictional NBC drama has eclipsed the popularity of "Meet the Press," "Crossfire" and even "Hardball With Chris Matthews" in this town. It has, as Brandon Tartikoff used to say, major heat. In bars people don't gossip about bumping into Sen. Trent Lott or presidential aide Sidney Blumenthal anymore. They exchange "West Wing" sightings. There's the whole cast feasting at Bobby Van's! There's Rob Lowe shooting an exterior by the OEB! There's Moira Kelly doing a scene on Constitution Avenue! And wasn't she the girl from "The Cutting Edge"?
But why is the entire city (320,000 people in D.C. watch every week) swooning over a show that is such an obvious river of liberal agitprop? The show's creator and writer, Aaron Sorkin, tried to deny that his show has any particular political bent in a recent profile in the Washington Post. However, a quick examination of the series shows his denial to be, as they say, inoperative.
"The West Wing" is such a thinly veiled roman ` clef about the Clinton administration that even most interns on the Hill know who the characters' real-life counterparts are. The featured players include George Stephanopoulos (Rob Lowe), Harold Ickes (Brad Whitford), Dee Dee Myers (Allison Janney), Mandy Grunwald (Moira Kelly), Hillary Clinton (Stockard Channing), Chelsea Clinton (Elizabeth Moss) and Bill Clinton (Martin Sheen).
But to Sorkin, a liberal Democratic activist, the real Clinton White House wasn't good enough. So he created a dream White House, starring not the real Clinton but the good Clinton who lived in the typical Democrat's mind in 1991. From there, the propaganda gushed forth. In the first season, Josiah Bartlet (Martin Sheen as Clinton) and his administration have come out in favor of paying reparations to blacks for slavery, using statistical sampling for the census, putting the self-described "most liberal judge in the country" on the Supreme Court, keeping a Secret Service confidentiality clause, letting gays serve openly in the military, enacting tough campaign finance reform and taking up hate-crimes legislation.
The Bartlet administration is against school vouchers, school prayer, a flag-burning amendment and the religious right. And apparently it's just warming up: In last week's episode, the president's advisors lament that they've dropped five points in the polls because they aren't being liberal enough.
But if "The West Wing" is silly as a political diatribe, it's brilliant as television. The writing -- and there is no one to credit but Sorkin -- crackles with energy. The dialogue ricochets from character to character with intelligence and precision. The pacing is swift and sure. The cast is professional and believable. And the production values are the best on network television -- from the elaborate, burnished sets to the dynamic yet smooth camerawork.
So how does "The West Wing" manage to be politically didactic and entertaining at the same time? And why isn't there a Republican version of "The West Wing"? The answer, of course, is that there couldn't possibly be a Republican version. Liberals can do drama well and conservatives can't.
There are, of course, exceptions to every rule, but, generally, when liberal politics intersects with dramatic entertainment, the results can be pretty good. TV drama in the '80s was dominated by "St. Elsewhere" and "L.A. Law," and today by "The Practice" and "The West Wing." When conservatives do drama it comes out as "The A-Team" or "Red Dawn" or "The Omega Strain" or, even worse, "Rambo."
Liberalism and conservatism each have distinct roles to play in civil society, and this explains why one makes for drama and the other makes for comedy. Democracies change, historically speaking, at a very fast pace. Liberalism is the engine of change; it always seeks to push the culture forward, to advance and evolve. Sometimes it brings about good things (like the abolition of slavery) and sometimes it brings about not-so-good things (like forced busing). But it is always fighting to move beyond the status quo. And eventually liberalism wins because the status quo does change. This Sturm und Drang is the stuff of great drama: It tells of brave struggles that give way to glorious accomplishments.
In a recent episode of "The West Wing," Lowe's character is confronted by the daughter of the chief of staff, a public-school teacher. Her father has just shown her a position paper that Lowe had once written advocating school choice and, like any good member of the National Education Association, she is furious. The two wage a pointed debate on the merits of vouchers and she becomes exasperated that he can be such a Neanderthal. And then Sorkin shows us his fastball: Lowe admits to her sheepishly that the paper she saw wasn't a position paper but an opposition-research memo. Of course he doesn't support school choice. He was only playing devil's advocate. They hug and make up.
"The West Wing" is full of earnest arguments and moments of triumph and, dramatically, they're very satisfying. But when that sincere hopefulness is used as a source of comedy it falls hopelessly flat. Think back to Dixie Carter's ham-handed "I am woman" punch lines on "Designing Women." Liberal comedies are either insulting or boring.
That's because the flip side of the coin is that for all of their dramatic successes, liberal messages nearly always make for bad comedy. "Murphy Brown," "Ellen," and "Designing Women" verged at times on the unwatchable. "M*A*S*H," one of the best shows ever to appear on television, always sagged whenever Alan Alda began his sensitive political philosophizing.
And as antithetical as it may seem, conservatism makes for great sitcom characters. Archie Bunker was much funnier than Meathead and Gloria. George Jefferson grounded "The Jeffersons," and Alex P. Keaton, played to incorrigible Reaganite perfection by Michael J. Fox, created the humor that was in "Family Ties." Even "The Simpsons" fills its shows with endless tweaking of the liberal agenda. (In one famous instance, Sideshow Bob is sent back to prison screaming that one day he'll walk the streets again because you can't keep the Democrats out of office forever.) And the most conservative character on television is, unquestionably, Hank Hill from "King of the Hill."
Conservatives are, to paraphrase John Stuart Mill, the stupid party. Conservatism doesn't like change. It fights a perpetual holding action that it knows it can't win because nothing stays the same forever. Of course, when societies change too fast they fall apart at the seams (witness the 1970s). Conservatives are the brakemen on the train, never stopping forward progress completely, but keeping the pace slow enough that the engine doesn't jump the tracks.
It is not, however, a glamorous job. Conservatism has been on the losing side of most of the fights since Brutus and Caesar took it outside. This win-loss record is good for the conservative temperament, if bad for the ego. Conservatism can laugh at itself -- and it can laugh at others, too, because part of its job is to poke fun at the more ridiculous aspects of liberalism. In the comic arena this resignation to defeat is gold, but in drama it's creepy. When conservatism is injected into drama, it is often preachy, bitter or wildly unrealistic, the result of losing too many arguments to history and never getting credit for saving the world from devolving into anarchy.
For his part, Sorkin certainly doesn't give conservatives any credit. He blames them for everything from starving inner-city children to sending death threats to the president's daughter. And it's wildly entertaining.