The Triumph of The West Wing
By A.D. Freudenheim

2 March 2003

Americans may be a little distracted these days, what with the U.S going to “Code Orange” a couple of weeks ago and now dropping down to “Code Yellow” rather mysteriously this past week; the economy continuing to flounder (if not exactly tank), while the Bush administration focuses on seemingly-unproductive methods for “stimulating” it chiefly by improving the circumstances of America’s Most Wealthy; and of course, the ever-changing, ever-imminent war with Iraq (or, “Showdown: Iraq” as I think one of the cable news channels has labeled it), which has pushed even some anti-war folks to bemoan the dilly-dallying and hope that Bush will just get on with it and get it over with.

Fortunately, Americans who watch the television series The West Wing get to be distracted by a whole other political world in near-real-time. Mistaking TV for reality is usually a bad idea – even when TV purports to show us reality, it is all to easily misused and manipulated. Sometimes, however, this intimate fabricated world can collide with outside events in fascinating and thought-provoking ways. To wit, in a recent episode of The West Wing, the fictional President Bartlett is faced with the beginnings of a Rwanda-like genocide – tribe against tribe – in a relatively remote African country; and the trouble occurs just as the President and his staff must finish preparing the speech for his second Inauguration, only days away.

As the African death toll rises, the President (urged on by several staff members) comes to the conclusion that something must be done by America; watching wooden soldiers move out of harm’s way in an old Laurel and Hardy movie, the President has an epiphany that seals the decision. In the ensuing discussion, President Bartlett not only frames out a new foreign policy doctrine for his Inaugural speech, but he establishes a blueprint for stopping the genocide in Africa, presently being watched live by the world on their own news networks. Bartlett says:

“We're for freedom of speech everywhere. We're for freedom to worship everywhere. We're for freedom to learn, for everybody. And because in our time, you can build a bomb in your country and bring it to my country, what goes on in your country is very much my business. And so we are for freedom from tyranny, everywhere, whether in the guise of political oppression, Toby, or economic slavery, Josh, or religious fanaticism, C.J. That most fundamental idea cannot be met with merely our support. It has to be met with our strength. Diplomatically, economically, materially..... No country has ever had a doctrine of intervention when only humanitarian interests were at stake. That streak's gonna end Sunday at noon.”[1]

Conservatives and Republicans justly claim that The West Wing is generally a left-wing show, and whether you think that’s because of the political leaning of its creators or a craven desire on the part of broadcaster NBC to appeal to a wealthy, left-wing, Baby Boomer audience is largely irrelevant. Long-time viewers will certainly have noted that the fictional President Bartlett shares some similarities with the real President Clinton, and that he can generally be described as vastly dissimilar to the current President, Mr. Bush, in a broad variety of ways. I am certainly not the only one to come up with this interpretation; for instance, the English newspaper The Independent ran a column by Johann Hari, who seems to have come to some similar conclusions.[2] (Readers will surely note that conservatives and Republicans would probably claim there is a left-wing bias on this web site, too, though to my knowledge, few conservatives and Republicans count themselves as readers, and the author would likely dispute the left-wing tag as philosophically inaccurate in many ways.)

As I sat and watched this recent episode, I found myself cheering President Bartlett’s strength, commitment, and determination, thinking about how proud I might have been had the U.S. actually intervened in the Rwandan crisis with a strong show of force back in 1993, in time to prevent so many deaths. (At the time, I helped lobby for intervention in Rwanda, and worked for a foundation that (among other efforts) paid for ads in The New York Times calling on Mr. Clinton to act.) And it was right about then that the message started to sink in; later, I went back and listened again to the Bartlett speech quoted above. Questions immediately came to mind: were The West Wing’s creators and writers trying to avenge old ghosts of the Clinton era – or seeking to show American audiences the theoretical value of the new Bush Doctrine? “Because in our time, you can build a bomb in your country and bring it to my country, what goes on in your country is very much my business” suddenly sounds a lot like the Bush Doctrine, an articulation easily applied to our situation with Iraq (along with a whole long list of other nations), and perhaps even much more relevant for the Iraq crisis than any real or imagined African genocide.

In Johann Hari’s column, he makes the point that despite the fictional President Bartlett’s deeply left-wing views, “Even if Bartlett were President, [the U.S.] would still be a deeply flawed and frightening country”[3] - and as an American I will admit that he has a point. The U.S. is powerful and difficult to control, from inside and out, and on the most pressing present issue, I believe that President Bush has not effectively made the case for all-out military action against Iraq. Yet as someone who also believes that U.S. dilly-dallying in Rwanda and Bosnia (among other places) played a role in permitting the devastating loss of life and human-rights abuses in each of those places, the Bush and Bartlett doctrines start to take on a new logic when viewed in this context.

I am still against this Iraq war, because I remain fundamentally against war in general. I am still for the full disclosure of U.S. intelligence on Iraqi operations and munitions, so that both Congress and the American people may accurately judge whether or not war is necessary. What The West Wing episode does is raise the question of whether or not We The People have done enough to review, discuss, or debate the new Bush Doctrine and its underlying rationale – and it calls upon us to do so not simply in the narrow context of a post-September 11 America, but in the broad scope of some sixty-years of American history, and foreign and military policy: from our studied ignorance about the Nazi’s mechanized slaughter of civilian populations to our careful alliances with questionable regimes during the Cold War (Pinochet in Chile, the Apartheid government of South Africa), to our continued support for repressive, murderous, anti-democratic regimes anywhere else in the world today (Egypt, Pakistan).

Let freedom ring.

[1] See:
[2] “A frightening picture of American superiority,” Johann Hari,
The Independent, 5 February 2003.
[3] Ibid; last paragraph.
Copyright 2003, by A.D. Freudenheim. May not be used in whole or part without written permission. However, you may link to this page as desired! Contact A. D. Freudenheim for further information.
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