The Justice of Melodrama:
The West Wing's Coping Strategies in a
World of Violence and Terror

Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture (1900-present), Fall 2009, Volume 8, Issue 2
http://www.americanpopularculture.com/journal/articles/fall_2009/kim.htm

 

Young Hoon Kim
University of Alberta


The NBC network’s popular TV serial drama The West Wing was broadcast in America from 22 September 1999 to 14 May 2006. The main characters of this show consist of President Josiah Bartlet (Martin Sheen) and his White House senior staff including Leo McGarry (John Spencer), Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford), Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff), Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe), and C. J. Cregg (Allison Janney). The show mainly depicts their sincere initiatives and actions in Washington D.C. politics. It has two prominent fathers, Aaron Sorkin and John Wells. Sorkin was the show’s original creator and in charge of the first four seasons. After Sorkin left the show, Wells took over in 2005 for the fifth season and ran the program until the end.

The West Wing provides audience members with a view of the internal workings of the White House. It is highly acclaimed by many critics, but often criticized for its blunt advocacy of left-liberal ideologies and the Democratic Party, reactions which are in a way natural in that the show focuses on presidents from the Democratic Party. However, the executive producers of The West Wing emphasize the political neutrality of their show. John Wells claims, “All the network asked us to do is present a balanced view of an issue” (Topping 49), and Sorkin argues, “I would disagree that this is a liberal show, […] Bartlet is a Democrat, [but] we’ve seen him be very hawkish in response to a military attack and [he didn’t] commute the sentence of the first federal prisoner executed since 1963” (Topping 118).

Generally, the political perspective and representation of The West Wing is very well balanced in that this show aims to open up the political and social conflicts for public debates through its literary imagination, rather than advocating specific issues. In an early episode in Season One, President Bartlet’s Chief of Staff, Leo says, “We’re gonna raise the level of public debate in this country, and let that be our legacy” (“Let Bartlet Be Bartlet”). Although how much this TV program actually raised “the level of public debate” in America may be debatable, it would not be implausible to claim that the presumed legacy of this show was to raise the level of public debate, which is extraordinary when we consider that the usual instincts of popular TV dramas do not often include such aspirations.

As a political TV drama, the show directly or indirectly reflects the contemporary American presidency including the second term of Clinton’s presidency and two terms of the Bush administration, and even predicts the first non-white president in US history. In addition, The West Wing White House deals with contemporary social-political issues faced by those in the presidency. However, it should be noted that the show’s rendering of those arguable issues and policies is always portrayed and completed in a way that fulfills many Americans’ imaginations and desires concerning the most important job in terms of running the nation.

Presidents and the presidency are popular subjects in contemporary American popular culture. These fictionalized presidents contribute to people’s understanding and imagination concerning the American president in powerful and meaningful ways. Among the numerous cultural texts about American presidents, The West Wing is an outstanding example in terms of influence on the public imagination. “For example,” notes Simon Phipott and David Mutimer, “with a viewing audience of more than 18 million per week, The West Wing reache[d] more Americans than any regularly scheduled news broadcast” (337). In addition, more Americans watched this fictionalized presidency than the actual American presidency: “‘When we do the census [in an episode], 13 or 14 million people watch,’ Bradley Whitford told the St Louis Post-Dispatch. ‘Somebody at the White House was saying, when they want to talk about something, if they get the news cycle, it’s maybe a million people. And if they bring up the census, the channel changes’” (Topping 66). If the way the political world is framed influences people’s political consciousness, we cannot disregard the importance of The West Wing in terms of shaping people’s ideas about the president and American politics at least in the time period when it was on air.

However, the numbers cited above do not necessarily mean that this TV show wielded real, concrete influences on US politics and policies. R. L. Holbert et al. argue that “The West Wing centers more on the presentation of character than policy. […] It is not so much the issues being presented on the program that matter, but the characteristics displayed by Bartlet in dealing with whatever crises arise during a given episode” (510). And they further claim that “The West Wing does not serve to provide individuals with a justification for their opinions concerning the American presidency. Instead, it offers audience members some context from which to understand what it means to be President of the United States on a daily basis” (511). Instead of advocating particular ideological policies for a certain political interest or change, this show is more generally about how President Bartlet and his staff collectively struggle to be righteous for the national interest, although agonized by political factions and inevitably limited time and resources.

The West Wing is a reflection of the American imagination about the presidency, but it is also a powerful mechanism that, due to the show's popularity, produces and shapes the public imagination about the presidency. How then does The West Wing frame the American presidency? And what are the implications of the show’s shaping the public imagination of the American presidency and politics? This paper explores select episodes in order to delve into these questions particularly in relation to September 11 and the war on terrorism.

The violence of the September 11 attacks ignites heated public debates on America’s foreign policies and use of violence. 9/11 has brought America into two wars that have still not ended. The basic presumption of this essay is that The West Wing, as the most popular weekly political TV series in that particular time period, provides Americans with a kind of coping strategy to deal with the dangerous and controversial American reality, which seems full of endless violence and terror. In other words, the way the show frames the American presidency and politics in relation to terrorism not only reflects what kind of danger America faces after September 11, but also provides the literary imagination necessary to cope with the violence of terrorism. Thus the show assuages the public’s anxiety with the sentimentality of justice while also offering a certain level of assurance.

The West Wing provides Americans with two different coping strategies in the world of terror and violence. In many episodes, the show reflects some elements of Derridian undecidablity along with Žižek’s impossible decision. In dealing with terrorism, President Bartlet faces difficult decisions, which some would say are impossible but necessary to make. In exploring the most (im)possible political choices which can be made by the president of the United States, this show’s public-political imagination expands the realm of politics in America. This public-political imagination is also melodramatic in that the representation of Bartlet’s (im)possible political decisions are often tied to very conventional elements of melodrama, such as overwrought emotion, non-classical narrative, and pathos, not to mention the moment of decisions exaggerated by The West Wing’s swelling theme music. By wrapping up politically critical and often possibly disastrous decisions with this type of melodramatic device, the show reassures its over ten million regular audience members, while providing a certain sentiment of comfort, safety, and righteousness.

I will first examine President Bartlet's decision concerning the assassination of Abdul Shareef who is The West Wing’s version of Osama Bin Laden. Shareef is the Defense Minister of Qumar, a fictional American ally state in the Middle East, but he is also known as the mastermind behind an attempted terrorist attack on American soil. Bartlet’s decision-making process regarding this covert mission reveals how the president struggles to be righteous but is also forced to make a decision in which he does not necessarily believe. This difficult choice seems to be the only reasonable one he can make when he considers the hostile world after September 11. While examining the situation forcing President Bartlet to make the decision, I will discuss how the arc of the Shareef plot in Season Three and Four reflects and justifies America’s unilateral actions after September 11.

In “The West Wing’s Textual President,” Patrick Finn argues this show is an Althusserian ideological state apparatus, in that this show glamourizes a repressive state apparatus by showing “that officials are working hard and that in the end – while they may make the occasional mistake – they have our best interest at heart” (114). It is beyond any doubt that The West Wing contributes to strengthening the justification and legitimacy of the state, as the show glorifies the presidency and the people who work for the president. The show’s rendering of the Shareef assassination is also well fitted to Finn’s claim. However, it should not be disregarded that The West Wing also disputes the reasonability of real politics in America after September 11.

In “Dialogue, Deliberation, and Discourse,” Samuel A. Chambers claims, “Riley [a former White House staffer] criticizes The West Wing when it does not mimic the actual practices of American politics. But it is precisely at that point of departure that the show starts to get interesting” (84). Similarly, I believe, when this show sets itself apart from the reality of American politics or, more simply stated, when reality becomes the most unrealistic, it becomes the most political.

Finally, I will discuss the melodramatic elements of The West Wing. The political imagination of the show is portrayed in melodramatic ways. Ben Singer argues that melodrama is a socio-cultural response to the chaos of modernity in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: “With its exaltation of virtue and ultimate poetic justice, melodrama offered a kind of compensatory faith that helped people cope with the vicissitudes of modern life” (135). As a coping strategy, “Melodrama thus affirmed the certainty of a kind of cosmic moral adjudication. Justice was meted out by a higher power that never failed to reward the humble and good and eradicate or reform the greedy, lustful, and corrupt” (Singer 137). Seen from this understanding of melodrama, The West Wing is an American melodrama against terrorism, which tries to provide the audience with a coping strategy to live in a world of moral chaos and violence after September 11. In examining Bartlet’s peacekeeping efforts and one of the most melodramatic moments in the show, this paper will discuss how the melodramatic elements in this show function here to enhance the Bartlet administration’s poetic justice.

 

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The West Wing realistically reflects the various aspects of American politics, such as the politics of compromise and partisanship, in an arguably neutral way. Obviously, the show embodies an idealized liberal Democratic president, but it was welcomed by an astounding number of ordinary American people. Even the Republicans appreciate its impartiality in describing American politics and love to see its representation of conservative values; President Bartlet is a pro-abortion-rights, same-sex-marriage and gun-control, but he is also very religious president who makes confessions in the Oval Office, after withholding his executive privilege to save a man awaiting the death penalty, and he is also an ardent follower of free trade (Topping 2).

President Bartlet resides at the center of this show’s rendering of politics. He is portrayed as a righteous and sincere person in the face of various crises like the threat of terrorism and conflicts in the Middle East and Asia. Then, what does make President Bartlet righteous in The West Wing? How does the show make him a man of sincerity and morality? Many on the left might find Bartlet righteous in his progressive, liberal agendas, which are drastically different from the Bush administration. However, advocating progressive liberal values does not simply make President Bartlet righteous. In fact, Bartlet’s decisions in many cases actually conflict with the left-wing, liberal agenda.

In the modern state system, the concept of justice is historically tied to the idea of law and human rationality, while to some extent rhetorically (or more than rhetorically) the concept of justice is associated with God or the laws of nature. However, this kind of justice can be very unstable and even controversial in that the executive power compromises and even purposely transgresses law for the sake of realistic interests.

In Season Three, which premiered right after September 11, the Golden Gate Bridge is faced with a terrorist threat. The mastermind of the threat is Qumari Minister Abdul Shareef who is supposed to visit the White House as a diplomatic representative of Qumar. After being briefed in the White House Situation Room, President Bartlet clarifies that he wants to bring Abdul Shareef to a US court for justice. He wants to respond to the leader of a terrorist organization, legally and righteously. However, the situation does not favor Bartlet’s legal sincerity against the threat of terrorism:

Bartlet: Did we solve immunity? [. . .]
David: But it doesn't matter.
Bartlet: Why?
David: The judge would throw out the case. The entire chain of evidence leading us to Shareef originates with the testimony of the Chechnyan prisoner.
Bartlet: Yeah.
Agent 1: His testimony was reached after prolonged physical abuse by Russian soldiers.
Bartlet: He was tortured?
Agent 1: Yes, sir.
Bartlet: Well, I’m no lawyer, but I’m pretty sure that’s inadmissible. We'll come up with a less aggressive way. We'll cancel his trip here, obviously, but we'll come up with something. That’s the ball game. (“We Killed Yamamoto”)

After the president leaves the Situation Room, the White House Chief of Staff, Leo McGarry, and Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staffs, Admiral Fitzwallace (John Amos), have a reflective conversation:

Fitz: Well, I appreciate it. Can you tell when it’s peacetime and wartime anymore?
Leo: No.
Fitz: I don't know who the expert on warfare is but any list of the top has got to include me and I can't tell when it's peacetime and wartime anymore.
Leo: Look, international laws always recognize certain protected persons who you couldn't attack. It's been this way since the Romans.
Fitz: In peacetime.
Leo: Yes.
Fitz: The Battle of Agincourt. This was the French fighting against the British archers. This was like a polo match. The battles were observed by heralds, and they picked the winners. And if a soldier laid down his arms, he was treated humanely.
Leo: Yeah.
Fitz: And the international laws that you're talking about, this is where a lot of them were written. At a time and a place where a person could tell between peacetime and wartime. The idea of targeting one person was ridiculous. It wouldn’t have occurred to the French to try to kill William Pitt. That changed after Pearl Harbor.
Leo: I don’t like where this is going.
Fitz: Leo...
Leo: In the Situation Room, Fitz.
Fitz: We killed Yamamoto. We shot his plane.
Leo: We declared war.
Fitz: Had Bonhoeffer been successful...
Leo: The plot to kill Hitler...
Fitz: There would’ve been statues built of an assassin. We’d have had to explain that to our kids.
Leo: I'm gonna get back to the office.
Fitz: We measure the success of a mission by two things. Was it successful, and how few civilians did we hurt? They measure success by how many. Pregnant women are delivering bombs. You're talking to me about international laws? The laws of nature don't even apply here. I’ve been a soldier for 38 years, and I found an enemy I can kill. He can’t cancel Shareef's trip, Leo. You've got to tell him he can't cancel it. (“We Killed Yamamoto”)

Representing the Bush administration’s understanding of the world after September 11, Fitzwallace’s arguments sound compelling and above all reasonable when we consider the exigency of the America’s national security concerns. In a world where even the laws of nature do not apply, President Bartlet’s insistence on legitimacy and justice based on laws would have appeared irrational to many audience members in America, particularly in 2002.

Likely similar to many American audience members as well, Leo is convinced by the admiral’s argument, and decides to persuade the president to take a more reasonable course of action responding to terrorism:

Leo: It's almost 8 a.m. in Qumar. You shouldn't cancel the trip. You should tell me to call the State Department. [. . . ]
Leo: What are the alternatives? Are we going to attack Qumar?
Bartlet: Maybe.
Leo: Now? We can kill all the armed teenagers we want, we still won't have Shareef. Let's get some more intelligence, some more counsel.
Bartlet: More counsel is gonna help me violate international law. [. . .]
Leo: Just stop it already. This is the most horrifying part of your liberalism. You think there are moral absolutes.
Bartlet: There are moral absolutes.
Leo: Apparently not. He’s killed innocent people. He'll kill more, so we have to end him. The village idiot comes to that conclusion before the Nobel Laureate.
Bartlet: El Principe has justified every act of oppression.
Leo: This is justified. This is required.
Bartlet: Says who?
Leo: Says me, Mr. President. You wanna ask more people, they'll say so too.
Bartlet: Well, a mob mentality is just...
Leo: Not a mob. Just you. Right now. This decision. Which, by the way, is one of self-defense. Let Shareef come here and we have options. Cancel the trip and we have none. That’s all we’re talking about right now.
Bartlet: There are moral absolutes. Make the call.
Leo: Thank you, Mr. President. (“We killed Yamamoto”)

If absolute morality or Kantian categorical imperatives could exist in the reality of the world, many would be relieved from the burden of agonizing over the important, life-changing, decision-making processes, which President Bartlet often experiences in the face of terrorism. The moral absolutes only remain in the faith of the people who believe them, and it is impossible to project absolute moral rules onto everyone. As we see from the above conversation, President Bartlet finds himself cornered in the face of the gray area, in his current reality, of moral absolutism.

In the real world, violence is abundant, but justice is hard to find. As the most powerful person in the world, President Bartlet often confronts serious moral conflicts. In the world the president lives in, says Sam, “There is no manual” (“Debate Camp”). However, it does not make the assassination of Shareef righteous. As Bartlet claims, it is an absolutely wrong decision, but The West Wing’s rendering of this decision-making process, as we see it, makes it look like the only possible and right decision. Instead of delving into the underlying reasons of why America was attacked on September 11, 2001, and currently faces terrorism, the show, in fact, creates a terror mastermind like bin Laden and executes him. It is not surprising that a national TV drama as popular as The West Wing reflects conservative values in a way that can provide the nation with the common sense of being a member of a community. In addition, it should be noted the NBC network was one of the most inflammatory networks in terms of framing September 11 for the right wing’s positions, while greatly simplifying the US’s complicated history within the Middle East: “Fox television and the NBC networks continued to be wall-to-wall propaganda for whatever line the Bush administration was putting out” (Kellner 150).

In “Posse Comitatus,” the last episode of Season Three, Bartlet finally orders the assassination of Shareef:

Bartlet: I want him tried.
Leo: That can’t happen. [. . .]
Leo: Who was the monk who wrote, “I don't always know the right thing to do, Lord, but I think the fact that I wanna please you pleases you?” [. . .]
Leo: What is your objection exactly, sir? [. . .]
Bartlet: It’s just wrong. It’s absolutely wrong.
Leo: I know. But you have to do it anyway.
Bartlet: Why?
Leo: Because you won.
Bartlet: Take him. (“Posse Comitatus”)

Though Bartlet is deeply aware of the illegality of his action, he needs to say “Take him,” because, as Leo points out, he is the president of the United States; he has the privilege and even the duty to transgress the law in order to protect the country from the threats of terrorism. What can President Bartlet do when confronted with the unfettered violence of terrorism in this world? Leo and Bartlet’s conversation shows an understanding of the reality America faces after September 11, which is so urgent that it can diminish any viable solution or exit. In the Shareef case, there is no vision of justice, which Bartlet could use and understand to decide upon the action of violence. In this sense, violating international law and assassinating an important minister of a foreign country might be the only reasonable choice President Bartlet can make when this is considered: “Anyway, 20,000 specific threats are made against U.S. targets every year” (“Evidence of Things Not Seen”).

In the milieu of The West Wing’s portrayal of the Shareef plot, it is insightful to compare two presidents’ different reactions to the Shareef assassination. After assassinating Shareef, a US Special Forces team manipulates all the evidence to disguise it as an accident. However, the Qumar government re-opens the Shareef case and claims Israel maneuvered it behind the scenes. In addition, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post journalist, Danny Concannon (Timothy Busfield) accidentally delves into and eventually divulges the Shareef story, when President Bartlet’s youngest daughter, Zoey (Elisabeth Moss), is kidnapped by the members of the Bahji terrorist organization in retaliation for Shareef’s death. Consequently, President Bartlet signs the document to resign his duty temporarily, because he feels his ability to lead the country conflicts with his personal interests as a father.

After the Post publishes the Shareef story, the US government responds to the public about the Shareef assassination. House Speaker Glen Allen Walken (John Goodman), who takes the temporary presidency, answers White House reporters as follows:

Reporter 1:
Doesn’t this murder undercut our moral authority to condemn human rights violations in China?
Walken: We live in the real world. Our value systems only work if everybody plays by the same rules.
Reporter 2: Mr. Speaker?
Reporter 3: President Walken? But didn’t it violate the Neutrality Act protecting citizens of friendly nations?
President Walken: Terrorists aren’t nations. The Neutrality Act doesn’t give a free pass to people who support murder.
Reporter 3: Is there concern about the appearance of a superpower flouting international law?
President Walken: International law has no prohibition against any country, superpower or otherwise, targeting terrorist command and control centers. Abdul Shareef was a walking command and control center. (“No Exit”)

If President Walken’s press conference reflects the official voice of the Bush administration’s policy against terrorism, the following conversation between President Bartlet and Leo represents a kind of internal voice of the nation:

Bartlet: We started this [Zoey’s kidnapping], Leo.
Leo: This isn’t about Shareef.
Bartlet: You’re right, it’s not. It’s about our allowing situations in these countries to develop in the first place. We choose the order and certainty of petty despots over the uncertainty and chaos of developing democracies.
Leo: Shareef ordered the slaughter of innocent women and children. He wasn’t a nationalist or a fledgling democrat, he was a cold-blooded murderer.
Bartlet: Six more American boys are dead.
Leo: And that doesn’t make you angry?
Bartlet: Of course that makes me angry! The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral. Returning violence with violence only multiplies violence adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.
Leo: Dr. King.
Bartlet: I’m part of that darkness now, Leo. When did that happen?
Leo: Dr. King wasn’t wrong. He just didn’t have your job. (“No Exit”)

This juxtaposition of two drastically different responses to the Shareef assassination in a single episode reflects two sides of a coin. On the one side, President Walken rationalizes the state’s illegitimate power. On the other side, President Bartlet ponders this illegitimate power or the original violence of the state and shows his human regrets about the past decision. The show’s rendering of these responses embodies a strong president, the leader of the nation, who would do whatever it takes for the security of America though he might greatly suffer as a person for his decision. Thus, this representation of a tormented Bartlet balances Walken’s image of the able-to-be-brutal strong leader thus providing the presidency with a greater sense of moral authority.

Miraculously, Zoey Bartlet is rescued, and President Bartlet resumes his presidency with the following speech:

I wish that I could tell you that there’s some new policy, some new weapons system, a silver bullet, perhaps, that could meet this moment that could keep us safe from the terror that's now among us. But if I were to say that, I’d be lying. All I can promise you is that I will fight with every fiber of my being with every weapon in our arsenal and with every ounce of God’s grace to keep us strong and free and safe. (“No Exit”)

In this speech, President Bartlet seems righteous, more than at any other time, not because his decision and action in regard to the Shareef matter were actually righteous in terms of morality or religion, but because he is thoughtful and tries to choose the best option although, on several occasions, he fails to do what he believes on a philosophical, intellectual, or spiritual level due to the limitations of reality. First Lady Abbey says, “You have a big brain and a good heart and an ego the size of Montana. You do Jed. You don’t have the power to fix everything. But I do like watching you try” (“The State Dinner”).

President Bartlet graduated from the University of Notre Dame Summa Cum Laude, had a Ph.D. in Economics from London School of Economics, was an Ivy League school’s tenured professor, won the Nobel economics prize, was congressman and governor of New Hampshire, and is also a descendant of one of the Founding Fathers who established New Hampshire. He scored 790 and 800 on his SAT; he took it twice because he could not figure out what he answered wrong. His knowledge of the Bible and classics is no less than the experts in those areas. Finally, he is the president of United States. However, he does not have the ability and power to do what he believes. This unsatisfactory reality might be the essence of politics. Bartlet tells his wife Abbey: “Max Weber said that politics is ‘the slow boring of hard boards. And anyone who seeks to do it must risk his own soul.’ […] It means that change comes in excruciating increments to those who want it. You’re trying to move mountains. It takes lifetimes” (“Privateers”).

Watching a man of such great achievements in agony over his powerlessness in politics, but still spoiling for a fight for justice would make many audience members wonder who would dare criticize Bartlet’s sincerity in his weighty duty. This sensible and emotional persuasiveness aroused by Bartlet’s struggles seems eventually to account for the manner in which the show manipulates the audience to admire Bartlet’s righteousness, while in a way slightly avoiding any further complicated discussions on justice.

Real politics is always the politics of compromise; it is impossible to think about politics in today’s modern political system without negotiations between multiple interested parties. As a political drama directly or indirectly reflecting politics in America, The West Wing shows the politics of compromise in many episodes; the Shareef case could be considered a case in point. Thus this show provides several examples of (im)possible decisions. In “Ethics and Politics Today,” Derrida argues, “One must, in some way, arrive at a point at which one does not know what to decide for the decision to be made” (298). In Derrida’s thought, this undecidability can guarantee the true decision, which we need to make to be righteous. The undecidability, however, does not mean that we should not decide. Rather what Derrida believes is that we should make a decision, which we cannot even think we cannot make. Similarly, in his Violence, Žižek also argues that the true decision is out of coordination. In other words, when the decision maker breaks the coordination in which the decision process would reside, only on that occasion can he or she make a true decision. So, a true decision should be (im)possible; it is an impossible decision, but to be righteous we need to make it possible. This aporia of decision haunts many important moments in The West Wing.

President Bartlet’s bold decision to bring “a just end to this senseless cycle of violence” in the Middle East represents a moment of true decision (“Gaza”). At the end of the fifth season, while touring Gaza, one of the American convoy’s cars is blown up by a terror group’s landmine. Two American congressmen and Admiral Fitzwallace are killed, and Josh Lyman’s senior assistant, Donna Moss (Janel Moloney), is in critical condition. This story arc continues at the beginning of Season Six, while showing President Bartlet’s effort to bring the Israeli and Palestinian leadership together for a peace summit at Camp David, which reminds many of President Clinton’s 2000 Camp David Summit. Although Bartlet has unilateral, bipartisan support from Congress and the majority of American citizens on executing military retaliations for the deaths of American delegates, he decides to bring peace to the region somehow.

Consider America’s reactions after September 11. When America sees itself as a victim, its expansionist politics explode, because it can easily legitimize its violence through its victimhood. However, Bartlet acts differently. His decision is not realistic at all. Many wonder what the President has in his mind:

Leo: Mr. President, please, Congress, the Joint Chiefs, the American public, your
own staff, everyone disagree with your assessment of this situation.
Bartlet: Killing Palestinians isn’t going to make us feel safer. They’ll kill more of us, then we’ll have to kill more of them. It’s Russian roulette with a fully loaded gun.
Leo: We can’t allow terrorists to murder our citizens.
Bartlet: Why would they do it? Why would Palestinians murder American
government officials they never have before? They’re deliberately provoking us.
Leo: They know we have to retaliate. They’ve studied us. They want us to overreact. This isn’t over-reacting. It’s the appropriate, balanced…
Bartlet: Tell me how this ends, Leo. You want me to start something that will have serious repercussions on American foreign policy for decades, but you don’t know how it ends.
Leo: We don’t always know how it ends. The Lincoln will be in position in a few hours and then you are going to give the go-ahead for the bombings.
Bartlet: Or what? (“NSF Thurmont”)

His senior staff proposes a regime change in the Palestinian territories by taking out Farad, head of the PLO, as America’s response to “an act of war.” Deputy National Security Advisor, Kate Harper (Mary McCormack), is the only dissenting voice when she wonders about the future ramifications of America’s immediate military response to the deaths of delegates in the Middle East. Somehow, Bartlett turns down Leo’s relentless proposal and firmly decides to bring about the peace summit at Camp David.

At this summit, obviously the future of Jerusalem is the most important topic. Both parties’ agreement on Jerusalem is the essential precondition to reaching a peaceful resolution between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Regarding this matter, Harper wittily says, “Any chance we can just give Jerusalem to the Swiss?” (“The Birnam Wood”). As with the real Camp David Summit in 2000, the summit meetings face deadlocks, and Bartlet’s effort to bring peace in that region seem failed. On the last night of the peace summit, however, Harper provides an idea that might make the both parties agree to share Jerusalem:

Kate: After the Six-day War, the Israelis offered to give the U.N. diplomatic status and immunities in the holy sites in Jerusalem.
Will: So?
Kate: So if they were willing to do it in ’67, why not now? They give the Muslim holy sites the status of diplomatic missions. The Israelis can keep all the sovereignty they want, they still can’t enter without permission from the Palestinians.
Bartlet: So the Palestinians would have a sovereign-like state that was inviolable like a foreign embassy.
Kate: The Palestinians will love it because it gives them the same custodial status over the Haram like the Saudis have over sites like Mecca and Medina. There’s only one catch. When the Israelis offered it the first time they wanted peacekeepers as part of the deal, in Jerusalem and throughout the West Bank.
Abbey: The U.N. will cough up peacekeepers if it will solve the Middle-East
crisis.
Toby: It can’t be the U.N. U.N. peacekeepers have no credibility with the Israelis. They let Egypt attack Israel through the Sinai in ’67. It’s going to have to be us.
Josh: How many troops?
Will: The Israelis have around 20,000 in the West Bank and Gaza.
Kate: The Europeans will probably pitch in, maybe contribute 10%.
Josh: 18,000 American troops patrolling the PLO’s backyard. Where the hell is
Leo? [. . .]
Josh: Is this really our job? Sending American teenagers into that breech.
Leo: What are we talking about?
Will: About putting an American peacekeeping force in the territories.
Leo: And we think that’s a good idea?
Josh: Some of us do.
Kate: The Palestinians want the Israelis out of the territories and the Israelis don’t want to leave the Palestinians there alone. We need an outside force to secure the borders, to ensure a smooth transition.
Leo: You think Congress is going to authorize that?
Kate: They’ve been asking for a show of force.
Leo: We’ll be throwing ourselves into a conflict we don’t understand and give religious fanatics even more to scream about. Not to mention political capital, economic costs.
Bartlet: It shouldn’t be our job, but no one else can do it. (“The Birnam Wood”)

In Violence, Žižek wonders, “The big mystery of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is why it has persisted for so long when everybody knows the only viable solution: the withdrawal of the Israelis from the West Bank and Gaza, the establishment of a Palestinian state, as well as some kind of a compromise concerning Jerusalem” (122). Although many viewers of this episode might find Kate’s proposition original, this type of compromise between the two hostile parties could have been envisaged, though not in public.

Surprisingly, in a 2008 interview with Yedioth Ahronoth, Ehud Olmert who was then an outgoing lame duck prime minister suggested sharing Jerusalem as a solution:

In both instances [relations with the Palestinians and the Syrians], the decision we have to make is the decision we’ve spent forty years refusing to look at with our eyes open. We must make these decisions, and yet we are not prepared to say to ourselves, “Yes, this is what we must do.” We must reach an agreement with the Palestinians, meaning a withdrawal from nearly all, if not all, of the [occupied] territories. […] Including Jerusalem – with, I’d imagine, special arrangements made for the Temple Mount and the holy/historical sites. […] This decision is difficult, awful, a decision that contradicts our natural instincts, our deepest yearnings, our collective memories, and the prayers of the nation of the Israel for the past two thousand years.

The real course of political action in regard to Jerusalem is certainly more complicated than represented in The West Wing; for example, the right to return to their homes in Israel could seriously compete for the priority of the Jerusalem problem for many Palestinian refugees. In addition, as we see, it is not impossible to imagine Harper’s idea even in the real world, though it could be very controversial to speak out about it in public. What seems the most impossible is to persuade both parties. In his “The never-ending story: Palestine, Israel and The West Wing,” Philip Cass introduces a Palestinian viewer’s response to this fictional summit meeting: “I think that the producers/writers made a great effort for these episodes to be balanced […] too balanced actually. I don’t think that the Palestinian and the Israeli parties would have been too easily fooled with ‘promises’ and ‘deals’ made with the American government” (43). However, again miraculously, Bartlet proposes Harper’s option to both parties and persuades the Israeli and the Palestinian to agree on a tentative peace accord.

How could Bartlet achieve this seemingly impossible agreement? And what are the implications of this political gesture? Our understanding of this idealized President’s efforts toward peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis can be more insightful when we juxtapose it with Bartlet’s decision on the Shareef assassination, as these two storylines are serially portrayed in The West Wing. In the uncomfortable and hateful decision on Shareef, what Bartlet embodies is a kind of original violence in the nature of every state and its sovereign. The Shareef case is an example of the state of emergency in which the sovereign of the state is endowed in the short term with exceptional powers for the protection and safety of the state. One problem in this type of execution of power is, as we see through Bartlet’s agony over the Shareef case, the claim of legal authority, which becomes murky at best. In such situations, the distinction between legitimate violence and illegitimate violence can be obliterated.

In Violence, Žižek reflects:

In all honesty I have to admit that every time I travel to Israel, I experience that strange thrill of entering a forbidden territory of illegitimate violence. […] But what if what disturbs me is precisely that I find myself in a state which hasn’t yet obliterated the “founding violence” of its “illegitimate” origins, repressed them into a timeless past. In this sense, what the state of Israel confronts us with is merely the obliterated past of every state power. (117)

The show’s rendering of Bartlet’s efforts to establish peace in the Middle East is basically a symbolic gesture to overcome the state’s obscured legal authority over violence in that the conflicts between the Israelis and the Palestinians reflect the remains of the original unjustified violence of the state.

Bartlet succeeds in bringing the two opposing sides together. However, we do not know how he achieves what President Clinton failed in his own Camp David Summit. The West Wing only shows Bartlet having two separate meetings with Chairman Farad and Prime Minister Eli Zahavy on the day of their departure (“The Birnam Wood”). Bartlet’s art of conciliation or threat is never fully explored in this episode. In a certain sense, the implausibility of Bartlet’s persuasion does not seem to matter at all.

Ben Singer observes melodrama’s “nonclassical narrative structure” as follows:

Compared with the classical narrative’s logical cause-and-effect structure, melodrama has a far greater tolerance, or indeed a preference, for outrageous coincidence, implausibility, convoluted plotting, deus ex machina resolutions, and episodic strings of action that stuff too many events together to be able to be kept in line by a cause-and-effect chain or narrative progression. (46)

The West Wing’s depiction of President Bartlet’s hard decisions often has some grave flaws. There is strong sentimentality covering an odd failure in basic literary technique. For example, the way in which Bartlet successfully finishes his MS (multiple sclerosis) press conference at the end of Season Two is never explained. Somehow, Bartlet manages his MS scandal and wins the presidential election again. Somehow, President’s kidnapped daughter safely returns to her parents. Somehow, President Bartlet manages to bring Israel and Palestine to a tentative peace accord.

This implausibility of the plot largely caused by the idealized presidency is often a target of criticism. In “Feel-Good Presidency,” Chris Lehmann criticizes The West Wing as follows:

The logic of these morally obtuse but deeply sentimental preenings of high-office holders is disturbing on many levels, but principally because it dramatizes something real: liberals, long sundered from the lineaments of any majoritarian politics, have succumbed to the worship of getting and holding power for its own sake. (218-9)

The West Wing is about a fictional, idealized American presidency. Though its portrayal of the American presidency is often highly acclaimed due to its realistic rendering of the political reality in America, the rendering of the show is basically very melodramatic in that it exaggerates sentimentality to idealize the American presidency with its plotlines and swelling theme music. “Melodrama is a drama form which is not highly regarded in our culture and is mostly dismissed as ‘a sentimental, artificially plotted drama that sacrifices characterization to extravagant incident, makes sensational appeals to the emotions of its audience, and ends on a happy or at least a morally assuring note,’” notes Ien Ang (61-62). In a way, The West Wing erases and wraps up any upcoming arguments or questions from the audience or other realms outside the production of this show. So, it can not only smooth out its ending but also justify the narrative of episodes with a sense of poetic justice, which is an act of avoiding the given problematic reality with emotional satisfactions. As Ben Singer reminds us, “Melodrama granted an ethical simplicity and legibility that made the world more secure, if not socially or economically then at least psychologically” (137). While mysteriously solving problematic issues or deceptively removing them from the rolling out of the main narratives, the show displays a sort of Capraesque sentiment, which gives the audience very optimistic visions and sentiments. Seen from this perspective, The West Wing is nothing but the Bush administration’s state apparatus that provides the nation a sense of security after September 11.

However, the implausibility of this show might be the most political aspect of it. As David Thorburn argues, “television melodrama often becomes more truthful as it becomes more implausible” (83), when it is the most melodramatic, when it appears the furthest from reality, The West Wing could be the most political in that the irrationality or implausibility of the show’s plot also represents the impossible challenges of politics. President Bartlet makes it public that he has not revealed his MS during his first presidential campaign (“Two Cathedrals”), shuts down the federal government after failing to come to an agreement on the annual budget negotiation with the Republican majority leader (“Shut Down”), and also decides to put his seemingly senseless efforts on the peace summit (“NSF Thurmont”). All these actions are (im)possible gestures in real politics because the risks of these actions are too high to take. However, these examples of the show’s political-literary imagination could exemplify a sort of public rationality the American might have badly needed in the world after September 11, 2001, in which America, as it was supposed and as we all well imagined, immediately responded with military actions to the terrorism of hatred and violence between different civilizations that threaten to destroy everyone’s lives.

In her Poetic Justice, Martha C. Nussbaum argues, “The literary imagination is a part of public rationality, and not the whole” (xvi). If the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections are the measure of how influential The West Wing is to the American public, the fictional America in a TV program does not have much power to wield in reality. Still, we can say that The West Wing’s imagination constitutes part of the public imagination in America. And it is probably the most morally serious yet popularly engaging fictional text in contemporary American culture. It shows us things such as might happen in the real West Wing. It makes it possible to experience what it is like to live the life of president of the US. It focuses on the possibilities of politics in the US, of the reality Americans encounter consciously or unconsciously, by inviting the audience to put themselves in the place of people who make important political decisions.

The West Wing makes this somewhat weary and distressing process palatable by giving the audience pleasure in the very experience of watching the show. It brings the audience into close contact with politics in America particularly in relation to the presidency. In this sense, The West Wing can construct and speak to its implicit audience which shares with the main characters in the show certain hopes, fears, and ideas of justice in the special moment of the historical period in America that we associate with the war on terrorism or the regime of the Bush administration. For that reason, the audience of this show can form bonds of identification and sympathy with the characters. In this sense, watching The West Wing enables audience members to become a part of the collective imagination about the American presidency.

The fictional presidency in The West Wing is not just a shallow imaginary consolidation of the American reality, but an exemplar which serves no end beyond itself. The collective imagination enacted by this activity is a public imagination. This collective imagination can be highly activated by the melodramatic elements of the show, can intermingle with human reasoning, and thus can influence people’s choices and decision-making processes. As a good literary work is disturbing as it summons powerful emotions, many episodes of the show disconcert and puzzle the audience. And in doing so, they can inspire the audience to re-examine or rethink the conventional wisdom of politics. In other words, as President Bartlet often says, “No idea is too stupid or outrageous.” There are no stupid ideas in the world in which Bartlet is president. While watching this fancy version of American politics, the audience is required to see and to respond to many political realities that might be difficult to face. Would it be possible for President Bush to lead a peace summit after September 11? What if he did? We might remember him as one of the most glorified presidents in US history.

It is impossible to verify the result of this type of interaction between the audience and The West Wing in that the nature of this interaction is very subjective and relative, but one thing beyond doubt is that The West Wing is a text that invites its audience to see how mutable the political body of America can be in the world of terror and violence. In all these ways, the audience is invited to think about the mutability of American politics in a world threatened by terrorism.

As The West Wing constructs a paradigm of ethical reasoning that is context-specific without being relativistic, as it shows political imagination seeking beyond coordination, the audience is invited through imagination to explore this concrete example of ethics mainly evolved from President Bartlet’s decision-making process. This type of imaginary exploring of ethical reasoning could be a public reasoning, and in this way, the audience can seek the best fit between the considered moral and political judgments in reality and the insights offered by watching The West Wing. The show would not provide the ideal story about social justice, but its literary imagination can be a bridge both to a vision of justice and to the social enactment of that vision.

In our political-reality, numerous polling data, stats information, and cost-benefit analyses favored by political economics, become so familiar in public policy that it is taken for granted. They are normative in public policy-making. The West Wing’s portrayal of the policy-making process also exactly reflects this phenomenon. The rationality of choice or argument is always supported or prepared by numbers. Senior staffs’ briefing memos are always full of statistical data, and everyone is obsessed with polling numbers about virtually every conduct of the president. In this culture of the only-hard-fact-driven political economics, statistical information means more than anything else in terms of supporting a particular argument. It is the ultimate reality that people rely on to make decisions.

However, The West Wing’s imaginative willingness to go beyond the polling data, stats game, and political factions is a preparation for a greater model of being America. The melodrama “must still instruct us, with whatever obliqueness, concerning the nature of that reality from which escape or respite has been sought” (Thorburn 79). Probably, The West Wing is more instructive than any other TV melodramas, in that it endlessly provides its audience escape and respite from the real politics, while not forgetting to expand the realm of the politics through its portrayal of (im)possible decisions.

In “20 Hours in America Part Two,” a swimming facility in a fictional university named Kennison State University becomes the target of terrorism: “Two pipe bombs were set off inside the Geiger Indoor Arena which is the swimming team's facility at Kennison State University. […] Forty-four people are dead.” On the same night, President Bartlet delivers a memorable speech at a banquet:

Securing peace in a time of global conflict, sustaining hope in this winter of anxiety and fear. More than any time in recent history, America's destiny is not of our choosing. We did not seek, nor did we provoke, an assault on our freedom and our way of life. We did not expect, nor did we invite a confrontation with evil. Yet the true measure of a people’s strength is how they rise to master that moment when it does arrive. Forty-four people were killed a couple of hours ago at Kennison State University. Three swimmers from the men's team were killed, two others are in critical condition. When, after having heard the explosion from their practice facility, they ran into the fire to help get people out. Ran into the fire. The streets of heaven are too crowded with angels tonight. They’re our students and our teachers and our parents and our friends. The streets of heaven are too crowded with angels but every time we think we’ve measured our capacity to meet a challenge, we look up and we're reminded that that capacity may well be limitless. This is a time for American heroes. We will do what is hard. We will achieve what is great. This is a time for American heroes, and we reach for the stars. God bless their memory. God bless you. And God bless the United States of America. Thank you. (“20 Hours in America Part Two”)

When Bartlet delivers this speech, the audience listens to his voice along with Tori Amos’s version of “I don’t like Mondays” in the background. It is Bartlet who argues, “Speech, words, spoken out loud. It becomes music, which can lift us in a way words can’t” (“War Crimes”). Amos’s music combines with Bartlet’s sonorous voice, and they enhance the sentimentality of this speech in which the audience would find President Bartlet’s vision and gravitas appealing during a crisis of terror and violence.

In one episode, Leo wittily says, “You campaign in poetry, you govern in prose” (“Talking Points”). When The West Wing is in prose, it reflects the most realistic aspect of America’s politics, and in that case, as Patrick Finn claims, The West Wing might be just “an extremely efficient way to market the United State’s number one global export: a normative form of democratic rule based on individual property rights” (124). However, when the show is in poetry, it touches the (im)possible realm of the political through its melodramatic imagination and its poetic justice; it also inspires some people who watch it.

Nussbaum’s ultimate argument in Poetic Justice is that our understanding of the world of reality, reason, and stats can be more perfect only when we introduce the literary imagination and emotions into this world. In this book, she restricts the examples of literary imagination only to social-realism novels, such as Dickens’s Hard Times and Wright’s Native Son. However, I believe, it is hard to find a better example than The West Wing, which can fulfill Americans’ imagination in relation to the world after September 11.


Works Cited


Ang, Ien. Watching Dallas: Soap Opera and the Melodramatic Imagination. Trans. Della
Couling. London and New York: Routledge, 1993.

“The Birnam Wood.” The West Wing. NBC. 27 Oct. 2004.

Cass, Philip. “The never-ending story: Palestine, Israel and The West Wing.” JAMMR 1.1.
(2007): 31-46.

Chambers, Samuel A. “Dialogue, Deliberation, and Discourse: The Far-Reaching Politics of The West Wing.” The West Wing: The American Presidency as Television Drama. Eds. Peter C. Rollins and John E. O’Connor. New York: Syracuse UP, 2003. 83-100.

“Debate Camp.” The West Wing. NBC. 16 Oct. 2002.

Derrida, Jacques. "Ethics and Politics Today." Negotiations: Interventions and Interviews 1971-2001. Trans. Elizabeth Rottenberg. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2002. 295-314.

“Evidence of Things Not Seen.” The West Wing. NBC. 23 Apr. 2003.

Finn, Patrick. “The West Wing’s Textual President: American Constitutional Stability and the New Public Intellectual in the Age of Information.” The West Wing: The American Presidency as Television Drama. Eds. Peter C. Rollins and John E. O’Connor. New York: Syracuse UP, 2003. 101-124.

“Gaza.” The West Wing. NBC. 12 May. 2004.

Holbert. R. L. et al. “The West Wing and Depictions of the American Presidency: Expanding the Domains of Framing in Political Communication.” Communication Quarterly 53.4. (2005): 505-522.

Kellner, Douglas. “September 11, the Media, and War Fever.” Television & New Media 3.2 (2002): 143-151.

Lehmann, Chris. “The Feel-Good Presidency: The Pseudo-Politics of The West Wing.” The West Wing: The American Presidency as Television Drama. Eds. Peter C. Rollins and John E. O’Connor. New York: Syracuse UP, 2003. 213-221.

“Let Bartlet Be Bartlet.” The West Wing. NBC. 26 Apr. 2000.

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Nussbaum, Martha C. Poetic Justice: The Literary Imagination and Public Life. Boston:
Beacon Press, 1995.

“NSF Thurmont.” The West Wing. NBC. 20 Oct. 2004.

Olmert, Ehud. “The Time Has Come to Say These Things.” The New York Review of Books 55.19, 4 Dec. 2008. Web. 27 Dec. 2009.

Phipott, Simon and David Mutimer. “Inscribing the American Body Politic: Martin Sheen and Two American Decades.” Geopolitics 10 (2005): 335-355.

“Posse Comitatus.” The West Wing. NBC. 22 May. 2002.

“Shutdown.” The West Wing. NBC. 19 Nov. 2003.

Singer, Ben. Melodrama and Modernity: Early Sensational Cinema and Its Contexts.
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“Talking Points.” The West Wing. NBC. 21 Apr. 2004.

Thorburn, David. “Television Melodrama.” Television as a Cultural Force. Eds. Richard
Adler and Douglas Cater. New York: Praeger Publishers, 1976. 77-94.

Topping, Keith. Inside Bartlet’s White House: An Unofficial and Unauthorized Guide to The West Wing. London: Virgin Books Ltd, 2002.

“20 Hours in America Part Two.” The West Wing. NBC. 25 Sep. 2002.

“Two Cathedrals” The West Wing. NBC. 16 May. 2001.

“War Crimes.” The West Wing. NBC. 7 Nov. 2001.

“We Killed Yamamoto.” The West Wing. NBC. 15 May. 2002.

Žižek, Slavoj. Violence: Six Sideways Reflections. New York: Picador, 2008.

 
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