A good little scandal this week and just when we needed it, when things were getting a little slow. “The West Wing” producer Aaron Sorkin perked things up by telling Tad Friend of The New Yorker that it’s good we’re “laying off the bubblehead jokes” about President Bush but let’s face it, we’re all just “being polite” and making believe Mr. Bush is a substantial figure. He added that it’s too bad NBC’s Tom Brokaw agreed to let the White House rearrange the president’s schedule to make him look “more engaged” when NBC aired its “A Day in the Life of the President,” which was broadcast after a recent “West Wing” episode.
When Matt Drudge got hold of the New Yorker interview, he headlined it on his site, spicing it with comments from an unnamed NBC executive who said “Sorkin does not speak for us.” Soon NBC president Jeff Zucker came forward to defend Aaron’s criticisms of Mr. Bush, saying he has every right to his views although he was wrong to criticize Mr. Brokaw, as everyone knows all presidents change their schedules for day-in-the-life shows. (And good thing, too. Cameras need action. You can’t show a president discussing national-security secrets or sitting in the offices daydreaming or answering the mail. You have to show them dashing into important meetings or burrowing quickly through the halls, which is how Aaron shows President Bartlett on “The West Wing.”)
* * *
I call him Aaron because I know him and I know him because I am an adviser or contributor to “The West Wing.” I’m not sure which because I can’t find the letter of agreement. I am, as far as I know, the only conservative who works on the show, though maybe there are more. I send Aaron e-mails from New York with ideas and suggestions. About every fourth show someone says something conservative. That’s usually me. Two weeks ago, for instance, Press Secretary C.J. was talking to Presidential Conscience Tobey about affirmative action. When Tobey pressed C.J. for her views, she said she was the wrong Democrat to ask. She explained that her father had once been denied a job when someone else got it in an affirmative action decision. Tobey nodded and asked, “How’s he doing?” C.J. said, lightly, “Fine.”
In my version, C.J.’s father had suffered. He was an idealist who believed everyone has an equal shot at success in America, a public school teacher who wanted to help kids and was gifted in his work with them; now he saw a less qualified and implicitly less loving person elevated at his expense, and only because he was the wrong color. It left him shattered. The flag on which he’d stood had been pulled from under him, and he never fully regained his balance.
When Aaron wrote it, C.J.’s father was not a victim of government but a fellow doing fine. In part because that’s how Aaron thinks about affirmative action, and it’s his show. And in part perhaps because C.J.’s terse “he’s fine” is dramatically interesting—a man is treated badly and he’s fine. Life is strange.”
* * *
Aaron is a really interesting man. He is brilliant to begin with, and he has more wit than he displays on his show. He works like a dog and is deeply committed to excellence in his work. He is, in my view, an incipient artist who has not fully decided whether he is a political operative who does art or an artist who does politics.
The show he produces each week is a hymn to the American political process. I love it. I think one of the most constructive things it does for our culture is help young people feel romantic about adulthood. It tells them that no matter who they are or where they’re from, they can work hard and rise and come to walk the halls of the White House, helping a great president lead his country well. It is a hymn, too, to professionalism, to the joy of being a professional operating at the height of one’s powers “along the lines of excellence” as JFK used to say.
It is a show about friendship and loyalty. No one cares about people like the chief of staff, Leo, a pained and sensitive man who’s earned his furrowed brow. It is compassionate about people in trouble (see Leo’s relapse into active alcoholism during the New Hampshire primaries) and respectful of people who struggle (see Josh’s secretary attempt, with respect for her own real if not heightened intelligence, to puzzle through the great issues of the day.) It is not a highly sexualized show, it is not violent, and it is wonderfully dramatic.
The shows in which Bartlett, reeling from the death of his beloved secretary in a car crash, struggling with his multiple sclerosis, trying to decide whether and how to run for re-election, and remembering his childhood with a bullying father who showed one face to the public and another to his son—well, this is a very long sentence but when it all came to a head with Bartlett having a semi-unhinged argument with God in the National Cathedral and then a semidelirious colloquy with the dead secretary in a lightning-lit Oval Office as a storm raged without—I thought it was as big and terrific and absorbing as TV gets. Some people put down the argument with God, but I thought it was beautiful because you don’t argue with one who does not exist. The estimable President Bartlett knows there is a great God. This is not bad.
Some episodes are not so good. The dreary lecture-show that followed Sept. 11 was an intellectual’s attempt to evade the truth of Sept. 11 by avoiding the emotions Sept. 11 elicited. It yielded lifeless drama, because the emotions of Sept. 11 contained within them the great truth of Sept. 11: Bad men did bad things, leaving us wounded and furious. A prim little history of terrorism that was wholly somber and yet lacked seriousness was just what no one needed. I thought it was an example of how stupid intellectuals can be, missing the obvious point that the neighborhood dunce apprehends in a second.
* * *
But back to what Aaron said about Bush. It is surprising that it caused so much comment, even in a relatively slow news week. Because Aaron Sorkin was only saying what Aaron Sorkin thinks. And Aaron Sorkin thinks the thoughts of a left-liberal.
Because he is a left-liberal. And the show he writes and produces each week, the show whose storylines and dialogue he dreams up, reflects his views, utterly.
No one has every accused “West Wing” of being a conservative show or a right wing show—no one, ever. That’s because it’s not. It’s a left-liberal show that propounds left liberal ideas through the acting of such left-liberals as the gifted Martin Sheen. I know this. Aaron Sorkin knows it. And you know it too if you’re paying attention.
A reporter once asked me if I thought, as John Podhoretz had written , that “The West Wing” is, essentially, left-wing pornography. I said no, that’s completely wrong. “The West Wing” is a left-wing nocturnal emission—undriven by facts, based on dreams, its impulses as passionate as they are involuntary and as unreflective as they are genuine. After I sent the answer in an e-mail to a reporter, I showed it to Aaron so he could have a response ready. I told him he was completely free to fire me and I could hardly complain, but he should fire me right away before the comment was published or down the road when no one remembers it. He laughed and said no, and the comment in any case was never printed.
Which left me mildly relieved. I continued sending my e-mails, and soon there was a rumor that the character of Ainsley Hayes, the young, blond, chic, fair-minded, miniskirt-wearing Republican lawyer, was based on me. I loved that rumor. I certainly enjoyed spreading it. I told my friends of course she’s based on me, it’s obvious, I have legs exactly like her legs, inside my legs. (Ainsley, alas, was dreamed up and in the Sorkian creative pipeline long before I got there. However if you tell people she’s based on me that’s really all right.)
* * *
But back to what Aaron said about President Bush. I think his comments were bubbleheaded. But they were not “wrong” or “terrible,” or “scandalous,” and not only because everyone in America has the right to insult the president, or any politician anywhere for that matter.
His comments were, to me, a step toward clarity and candor, which are good things. Aaron Sorkin thinks Republicans in general are bubbleheads. He thinks conservatives tend toward evil and cynicism, although I think some stubborn little part of his brain knows it isn’t quite that easy.
But it isn’t bad that Aaron was frank, and it isn’t bad that he put his political heart on his sleeve. He writes what is arguably the most important political show in America. He shouldn’t have to hide where he stands. His New Yorker comments reminded me of the flap following the disclosure that my old boss Dan Rather had hosted a Democratic fund-raiser in Texas. He’s a liberal, why shouldn’t he go to a Democratic fund-raiser? And why shouldn’t we know it, and factor it in as he reports the news?
Tony Snow of Fox News Channel got in a small amount of trouble last year for making a speech to a conservative group. So what? Why shouldn’t he speak to a conservative group? One of the great things about the explosion of media in our time—all the TV and radio and talk shows and Internet sites—is that everyone gets a voice. There isn’t only one media funnel now, as there used to be, and the people at the networks don’t have to pretend anymore that they don’t hold political views when they do, and passionately.
“The West Wing” is liberal. I like it. I am not a liberal. I am a conservative. I watch it each week and enjoy it because I am capable of ignoring its political slant and filtering out its political propaganda. Once I push past them, and I do not as a rule find it difficult, I can find out how the Bartlett campaign is going and whether Sam is getting a personal life and whether Tobey will get back with his former wife and C.J. fall in love with the reporter. You just have to push past the slant to get to the drama. Then you can sit back and enjoy not only the characters but the actors, like Martin Sheen, who happens to be a wonderful Dorothy Day kind of Catholic and whose politics are intransigently leftist and therefore quite stupid.
* * *
A note on Aaron’s art. If he screened out the propaganda on his own it would not only make it easier on a lot of us, it would put him that much closer to being a dramatist of the stature of a William Inge or Tennessee Williams or Paddy Chayevsky. With a first-rate artist you can often guess his politics. Walker Percy, who wrote about the secret brokenness and lostness of our selves, which is to say our souls, was probably in many ways a conservative. Tennessee Williams with his great tugging heart toward the outsider, the outrider, the one who doesn’t fit, was probably a liberal. Eugene O’Neill, if he had lived 20 years longer, through the 1970s, would probably have completed the transit from socialist to right-wing nut.
Or so I imagine.
But I have to guess. Their work doesn’t bludgeon me with the political views of the dramatist (or, in Percy’s case, the novelist.) Their work stands, speaks and stays, untethered to passing political views and positions. Which is one reason they’re great.
His show would be better if Aaron Sorkin tried to be great.