The Human Side of Power
It would be impossible to have a President’s week on a site that discusses creativity and storytelling without discussing the West Wing. Aaron Sorkin took television by storm in 1999 with this drama about fictional President of the United States Josiah “Jed” Bartlet and his senior staff, taking us inside the west wing of the White House and captivating audiences for seven seasons. But what is it about this show that is so compelling?
Let’s leave aside the snappy dialogue, the top-shelf actors, the stunning sets, and the way each episode delivered a stinging commentary on topical political issues. Those are certainly all very good reasons why the West Wing won twenty-seven Emmy Awards over the course of its run, including four for Outstanding Drama Series. Yet, there’s something more.
The characters on the West Wing — which was a true ensemble show, giving equal weight to its main characters — are what kept us watching this show week after week, season after season. Chief of Staff Leo McGarry (John Spencer), Deputy Chief of Staff Joshua Lyman (Bradley Whitford), Communications Director Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff), Deputy Communications Director Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe), and Press Secretary C.J. Cregg (Allison Janney) wowed us with their passion, humor, and sheer humanity. Here were very important people with very important jobs who were also plagued by insecurities and everyday concerns, just like the rest of us. It was that humanity that made us care.
That is especially true for the President himself. Martin Sheen’s Jed Bartlet is an impressive man who is easy to admire. He is articulate, educated, and ethical. He has an eccentric sense of humor, but is able to laugh at himself more comfortably than he can laugh at others. He is a charismatic figure who can command a room with his voice and his carriage. And yet, what draws us in is not solely admiration, but admiration coupled with fascination that this character, who is the most powerful political figure in the country, is also a human being.
He’s a father who cares about his wife and daughters. He agonizes over his girls’ boyfriends and husbands. He gets frustrated with his equally intelligent and equally stubborn wife. He can be hurt by the actions of this family and friends. He gets angry when he feels wronged. And he gets scared about the situations he faces and the weight of the responsibility that has been given to him.
It’s this humanity — embodied in President Bartlet as well as the rest of the characters — that makes the West Wing a masterpiece. If this were merely a show in which we could get a dramatized glimpse at how the west wing functioned, at how the staffers made decisions that affect the country, the show would have been a novelty that would have worn off quickly. Instead, Sorkin and his team put a group of people in a pressure cooker with incredibly high stakes, gave them depth and personality, and asked how they would handle each crisis. Because the characters were so real, the audience couldn’t wait to find out the answer, over and over, for seven seasons.
Below are some examples of Sheen’s President Bartlet. Which are examples of his human qualities, and which are examples of his admirable statesmanship? Which are both? What are some of your favorite moments, and why?
Season One, Episode Six, “Mr. Willis of Ohio”: President Bartlet loses his temper with his daughter Zoe after she is accosted by a group of college boys in an area bar.
Season Four, Episode Six, “Game On”: A debate. A moment. No further explanation needed.
Season Two, Episode Three, “The Midterms”: President Bartlet explains why using the Bible to argue against homosexuality is a bad idea.
Season Four, Episode Eight, “Process Stories”: Toby has some news to share with President and Dr. Bartlet, but it may not be the best time.