“The West Wing” has been a cultural phenomenon. The drama survived the toxicity of reality television and a controversial war with great grace and dignity. More importantly, it emerged to introduce a characteristic that has been lacking in modern politics: inspiration.
The character President Josiah Bartlet combined the best traits of an American presidency. He possessed John F. Kennedy’s speaking prowess, the economic success of the Clinton administration and the iconic popularity of Franklin D. Roosevelt.
A sharp contrast is created. The common denominator of the show’s characters is the pursuit of major advancements under the zenith of leadership. The common denominator of Americans in modern society has become the maintenance of prosperity under the command of lesser evils.
The clash between these extremes culminated to create the leader our nation is craving, and when the show was cancelled, I felt a pang of loss. I cannot begin to count the times I said, “Why can’t we elect a president like this in real life?”
I still wait for a person who commands not only attention, but also inspiration – a president who will make Americans feel like they are witness to a proud chapter of our history, he or she producing footage that will become part of our media’s canon like Kennedy’s inaugural address or Dr. Martin Luther King’s “dream.”
“The West Wing” addressed this issue in its last season. Jimmy Smits plays a senator struggling to get into the Democratic Party’s presidential debate. His staff flirts with attack ads and calls his opponents “chicken” for not wanting to face the full field of nominees.
Meanwhile, he prepares for a debate he may not be allowed into. The woman coaching him says he does not have “the presidential voice.” Jimmy’s character, Mathew Santos, lacks a crucial factor required for our nation’s highest office.
The senator is not convinced. Later in the episode he asks an aid if he believes such a “voice” really exists. The reply is that the president makes the voice, and not the other way around.
Afterward he gives an impassioned speech on live TV in place of the attack ad. It gains him enough respect and popularity to enter the debate, and eventually wins him the presidency.
This idealism is parallel to a phrase Britons attach to their monarchy: “the royal magic.” This mystique is vitally important to a royal family’s ability to govern. They are supposed to be the living embodiment of the state – an entity that is above politics and the object of national pride, just as our presidency (not the president himself) should be.
Next to our flag, the Oval Office should be the greatest object of respect. This is not to say the commander-in-chief should be above reproach. In fact, it is our job as citizens to keep tabs on our public servants.
However, once its inhabitant harms the institution of the presidency, we should not be surprised when our nation is plagued with apathy and hatred.
British author Anthony Sampson wrote that the “daylight has penetrated into secret corners and most of the mystery has vanished [from the monarchy].”
The same is true for our presidency.
There should be little wonder then that campaigns for the election in 2008 have begun so early. Americans are eager for a light at the end of the tunnel that does not lead to death – a deafening clarion call from the darkness.
I pray, for our own sake, that we find it.
Wolfe is a junior studying English education.