'West Wing's' Nice Politics R.I.P.

NBC TV shows Martin Sheen as President Josiah Bartlet in the dramatic series "The West Wing" at the funeral for long-time friend and right-hand man, Leo McGarry.
AP Photo/NBC, Mitchell Haddad
This column was written by Ezra Klein.
By the time you read this, The West Wing will have ended weeks ago. Matt Santos will have picked out his Oval Office rug, and Josiah Bartlett will be boring building contractors with rapid-fire trivia as they haggle over the final details of his library. The Sunday nights of liberals, once occupied, will now be free: free to watch DVDs of the show's seven seasons, of which the first four seasons (those written by Aaron Sorkin) are now a staple in every liberal's library; and free to watch reruns of The West Wing, which, along with celebrity poker, comprise almost the entire programming lineup for Bravo. Bartlett, I fear, has not yet begun to fight. But if The West Wing isn't really ending, the particular liberal psychology it chronicled is. And that's probably for the best.

Peggy Noonan described the show as a "liberal's wet dream," and John Podhoretz termed it "political pornography for liberals." And maybe it was. But if this is smut, then my, what earnest, studious, fair-minded smut we favor. Because what The West Wing presented wasn't a world where liberals won every war or triumphed in every battle, but a world where policy mattered, where intentions were good, and, most of all, where the vast majority of characters busily striding through the halls of power were good, honest, well-intentioned folks. Even the Republicans.

Especially the Republicans.

It was a Republican, after all, who saved Leo McGarry, the beloved White House chief of staff. During hearings held to determine whether Bartlett had lied about his health during the campaign, Representative Darren Gibson, a Republican member of the Judiciary Committee, was set to reveal that McGarry suffered a relapse into alcoholism only moments before a presidential debate. Cliff Calley, the committee's majority (GOP) council, protested the allegations' relevancy. The reason for the hearings, he argued, was to find out whether the President broke the law. No, Gibson replies: "I live in the actual world, where the object of these hearings is to win." Calley's riposte, a fantasyland example of how Democrats wished Republicans had operated during the Lewinsky hearings, is one of the show's great bits of dialogue. "No, it's not." Calley says. "Not while I'm the majority counsel, it's not. This is bush league! This is why good people hate us. This, right here. This thing. This isn't what these hearings are about. He cannot possibly have been properly prepared by counsel for these questions, nor should he ever have to answer them publicly. And if you proceed with this line of questioning, I will resign this committee, and wait in the tall grass for you, Congressman. Because you are killing the party." Calley's monologue convinces the committee chair, the tall grass stays unruffled, and McGarry's shame remains his own.