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.
The show is peppered with moments like this, moments when the Republicans are good and those few who aren't, like Gibson, are swiftly dispatched. The just-ended final season was the apotheosis of the West Wing imagination — two presidential candidates, the Republican more decent and virtuous than even the Democrat. Arnold Vinick was a liberal McCain: deeply pro-choice, concerned with inequality and poverty, and determined to exorcise religion from the public sphere and rescue his party from the fundamentalists. During the Iowa caucuses, it was Vinick alone among the candidates (of both parties) who had the stomach to denounce ethanol subsidies. He had the one virtue the show deems unconquerable: virtue.
Indeed, the show strained almost too hard to protect his purity. The one time Vinick attempted a pander, offering the vice presidency to his Pat Robertson-esque primary challenger Don Butler, Butler turned him down flat, explaining that his pro-life beliefs were sacred and he couldn't sacrifice them for the slot. If Joe Klein characterized Bill Clinton in Primary Colors as so talented that the universe seemed unwilling to let events drive him from politics, The West Wing made Vinick so good that the world refused to abet his attempts to sin.
And it was Vinick who was supposed to win the election, at least until John Spencer, the actor who played McGarry, was felled by a heart attack. His passing was subsequently mirrored in the show — art imitating death — and the screenwriters decided that the audience couldn't bear a further blow against the Democrats (two of the writers, Eli Attie and Lawrence O'Donnell, are former Democratic aides). Santos won, and subsequently made Vinick his secretary of state.
This was the world of The West Wing, a realm of comity, decency, respectable opponents, and honorable intellectual warfare. A world where the moderate Republicans triumphed and the ideologues got rolled. It laid bare a peculiar, and possibly temporary, quirk of liberals: their aching desire to believe the best of their opponents.
A tour of conservative cultural phenomena doesn't turn up anything quite so generous. Rush Limbaugh has mused that "what's good for al-Qaeda is good for the Democratic Party." Michael Savage predicted that a John Kerry presidency would declare the Bible a "hate book" and create a market in "baby body parts." Compare that with the liberal commuter's favored companion: National Public Radio's comforting, politics-as-Plato-conceived-of-it drone.
Television is little better. Who can forget that very special episode of Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell's The 700 Club, when the two agreed that gays, feminists, and the liberals who love them caused September 11? Or FOX News' John Gibson saying that "of course" the terrorists wanted John Kerry to win?
On the literary side, the eschatological dime novels of the Left Behind franchise make the Antichrist the secretary- general of the United Nations. But the cake is taken by a new conservative comic book series, "Liberality For All," which imagines a world in which Al Gore won the 2000 election. According to the authors, the comics are aimed at answering the age-old question, "What if today's anti-war Liberals were in charge of the American government and had been since 9-11? What would that society look like in the year 2021?"
Since a graphic novel tracking the establishment and continued funding of the Social Security "lockbox" probably wouldn't sell, the comics see Gore criminalizing outspoken conservatives through the "Coulter Laws" and ceding control of the U.S. military to the United Nations. Meanwhile, Osama bin Laden becomes Afghanistan's ambassador to the U.N. and, predictably, concocts a plan to nuke New York. He must be stopped, and who better than the — I'm serious here — super-team of G. Gordon Liddy, Sean Hannity, and Oliver North, who've all been driven underground and bio-mechanically enhanced so as to do the job.
But this is not to tumble into stereotype and observe smugly that liberals are decent folk who deserve no end of gold stars for believing the best of their opponents. Quite the opposite, in fact. The consumption of such peaceable, comforting conceptions of the world as The West Wing offered softened the left. The belief that, deep down, their political opponents had the country's best interests at heart, that they were misguided do-gooders rather than aggregations of corporate interests and constituent demands, was poison for the Democratic Party. It helped create the mindset that left Alan Colmes one of the most prominent progressive media personalities; that allowed Tom Daschle and Dick Gephardt to get so routinely outmaneuvered by the Republicans, seeing their carefully crafted compromises torn apart in conference committees staffed by the Republican leadership's handpicked negotiators; that led Democrats to unite after September 11 and largely support the Iraq War only to be blindsided when George W. Bush appropriated Joe Lieberman's Department of Homeland Security, added union-busting provisions, and rode it to victory in the 2002 elections. These Democrats insisted on believing the best about their opponents, and so were comically unprepared when the right played hardball.
So as The West Wing exits stage left, so too does the mindset that created it. Daschle and Gephardt have given way to Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi, and now it's the Democrats deploying parliamentary jujitsu to force hearings and sink legislation. NPR is still around, to be sure, but Air America has burst on to the scene, boasting a full lineup of enthusiastic airwave warriors. Stephen Colbert has stepped forward, finding popularity and success by parodying the bloviating buffoons of right-wing media. And the blogs have grown fruitful and multiplied, bringing with them an appetite for confrontation and a talent for pugilism that's begun to reshape the political landscape.
One could bemoan this, lamenting the exit of civility and the acceptance of trench warfare. But why? The Clinton era, which provided the inspiration for The West Wing, should not have proved a notably tense period. After 12 years of Republican presidents, Democrats had elected a leader who promised to banish that which was most controversial and inflammatory from the party. It was precisely the sort of performance that The West Wing's Republicans would have cheered. And yet it was Clinton, after exiling Jesse Jackson and eschewing so-called "class warfare," who gave rise to the ferocious Newt Gingrich and the hardliners of the Republican Revolution. Whatever goodwill and good faith he initially displayed was met with corresponding increases in partisan rancor and contempt. What explanation is there save that they smelled blood?
It's counterintuitive, to be sure, but it may be that the only way to ratchet down tensions is for both sides to come armed. And that can't happen so long as liberals believe that, deep down, conservatives don't really want to fight. For now, however, rapprochement is a decidedly second-tier consideration. I'm certainly a typical liberal softie who thrilled to The West Wing's world of comity and compassion. But nowadays, I'm also a post-Bush liberal: As much as I want us to all just get along, I'm much more interested in seeing us win.
By Ezra Klein
Reprinted with permission from The American Prospect, 5 Broad Street, Boston, MA 02109. All rights reserved