Real Liberals versus the "West Wing"

Mackubin T. Owens

February 1, 2001

I have a confession to make that may get me drummed out of the vast right wing conspiracy. I love NBC’s Wednesday night drama, "The West Wing." I watch it religiously. It is well written and extremely well acted. Even though a hardened survivor of "Potomac fever" might find the stories a bit of a stretch, they are usually entertaining and occasionally riveting.

The orientation of the show is certainly liberal. Indeed, liberal opinion on issues such as environmentalism, economic policy, and racial quotas, about which reasonable people may disagree, are treated as settled fact on "The West Wing" while conservative positions are frequently caricatured. But the main characters, who place principle above personal gain to do what is right for America, are such admirable human beings that the show’s relentless liberal orthodoxy fades into the background. They always play fair, but they have their work cut out for them because in this morality play, the forces of evil really are evil. Indeed, the Republicans, especially those associated in some way with the "religious right," are positively reptilian.

Setting the style of "The West Wing" is President Josiah Bartlet, magnificently portrayed by Martin Sheen. "The West Wing’s" president is a holder of a Nobel Prize in economics, but he also happens to be a devout Catholic who knows the Bible by heart, which comes in handy when he needs to demolish the pretentious right wing religious fanatics who continually vex him and obstruct his efforts to make America a better place.

Although his administration is reliably liberal, President Bartlet possesses virtues even a conservative could admire. He obeys the Constitution and the law. He is devoted to his wife and daughter. Being unfaithful to his wife would never cross his mind. He is no wimp when it comes to foreign policy–no quid pro quo for him. When a hostile state shoots down a US plane carrying a Navy doctor who has treated him, President Bartlet takes it personally and makes his chief of staff as well as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff explain why he shouldn’t call down the wrath of God on the people who did it.

He is absolutely open-minded and insists on hearing all views, even conservative ones. In one episode, a conservative woman commentator, probably based on Ann Coulter, obliterates Rob Lowe’s character, the brilliant lawyer Sam Seaborn, in a television debate. President Bartlet insists that she be offered a job. Despite her deeply felt conservative beliefs, she is soon won over by the integrity of the president and his
advisers. As the episode ends, she is chastising her former right wing cronies, rendered speechless by her decision to accept a job from the despised Democrats, for criticizing her new employer. Any liberal who could so easily co-opt Ann Coulter must be pretty impressive. By God, even I would vote for such a man.

For the student of popular culture, the most interesting thing about "The West Wing" is what it reveals about how liberals see themselves. Not only are they right, they are good. Not only are their conservative opponents wrong, they are evil. This is especially true of conservative Christians, who are portrayed as anti-homosexual, anti-woman, and

Of course, real life liberals rarely live up to the standards set by the liberals of "The West Wing." No one could possibly mistake Josiah Bartlet for Bill Clinton or Al Gore. The same goes for liberal pressure groups and member of Congress. For instance, Jeff Jacoby, the columnist for the Boston Globe refers to the groups that have lined up to oppose former Senator John Ashcroft’s nomination to be Attorney General as "extremists, bullies, and character assassins." This is what liberals call conservatives, but let the record speak for itself.

Because of his position on gun control, one group labeled Mr. Ashcroft an intellectual bedfellow of mass-murderer Timothy McVeigh. Because of his opposition while Governor of Missouri to a dubious and costly court-mandated desegregation plan (also opposed by his Democratic predecessor) and his opposition to a single Clinton African-American judicial nominee (he voted to confirm 26 of 27 black judicial nominees) on philosophical grounds (opposition supported by several state and national law-enforcement organizations), he has been branded a racist, or at least someone who "lacks racial sensitivity." He has been smeared as anti-woman, mainly because of his principled opposition to abortion.

Using the criteria established by Mr. Ashcroft’s opponents, we would have to conclude that Senators Ted Kennedy and Patrick Leahy are anti-black because they opposed the nomination of Clarence Thomas to be a justice of the Supreme Court. We would have to presume that liberal pressure groups and Senate Democrats are anti-woman because two of the three cabinet nominees that have evoked the most passionate opposition are women.

To oppose a nominee because of disagreement with his or her political position is one thing. To slander a nominee with gutter charges of racism or misogyny is quite another. Such character assassination used to be called "McCarthyism." If Mr. Ashcroft’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing were portrayed on "The West Wing," you can be assured that the slanderers would be conservative Republicans.

Indeed, real liberals would never make it on "The West Wing." They would have to be transformed into repellent conservatives. On "The West Wing," Sen. Kennedy would be portrayed as a blowhard Republican, so inarticulate that he could not speak coherently on policy issues without having his every word written out by his staff. While he would calumniate others on behalf of the extremist right wing groups that support him, he himself would have a shady past that indicated a deficiency of character. Perhaps the writers would portray him as having caused the death of a female member of his staff, subsequently fleeing the scene of the accident, and relying on his powerful family to cover up his responsibility for her death.

Or how about my own congressman, Patrick Kennedy of Rhode Island’s second congressional district? Since everyone knows that the Republicans are the party of the rich, a young congressman from a wealthy and famous family who has never held a real job would have to be a Republican. Perhaps he would pass himself off as the friend of a racial group, say African-Americans. But his touching solicitude for African-Americans as a group would be unmasked as gross hypocrisy. When inconvenienced by a real African-American woman trying to do her job, our "West Wing" Republican Kennedy would try to shove her out of his way, perhaps giving her arm a yank for good measure. When the event was made public, he would claim that he was the real victim. Boy would "The West Wing" have fun with a story like that.

Liberals rightly denounce hate-mongers, witch-hunters, and racists. But all-too-often the actual behavior of real-life liberals indicates that they have become a perfect mirror image of what they say they despise. Perhaps real-life liberals should try to emulate the character of the liberals as portrayed on "The West Wing" but don’t hold your breath.

Mackubin Thomas Owens is professor of strategy and force planning at the Naval War College in Newport, RI, and an adjunct fellow of the Ashbrook Center. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the War College, Navy Department, or Department of Defense.