President Bartlet doesn't exist.
That fact may be obvious, but for many of us, it’s also heartbreaking. Fans of The West Wing have long appreciated the fair-minded, selfless, Democratic President (in spite of the ways they may have disagreed with his policy decisions) primarily because of the manner in which he wields his power. Bartlet is the essence of humility, constantly aware of the effect of his decisions on others. The unwavering loyalty of his staff only reinforces for him the seriousness of the opportunities in his presidency.
It’s heartbreaking to realize that President Bartlet doesn’t exist precisely because of the tensions that dominate The West Wing. There’s a constant sense throughout the series that if anyone else were in this situation, we’d all be in trouble. The viewer is relieved to find Bartlet at the helm thinking deeply about the implications, stakes, and repercussions, speaking and commiserating with families of the deceased, inspiring schoolchildren, and giving his speechwriters pep-talks. Because Bartlet exists, the world of The West Wing is a significantly better place.
Because it relies so heavily on this particular person, The West Wing is more escapist fantasy than political realism. Still, it kicked off a cultural conversation on television that continues to wrestle with the implications and downfalls of power. Two more recent series, House of Cards and Scandal, come across almost as direct reactions to The West Wing’s starry-eyed optimism. While these shows are seemingly cynical rebukes of The West Wing, they take the extra step of exploring issues beyond the shaky human foundation on which power rests.
Pursuit of Power
House of Cards’s Frank Underwood is an uncomplicated, soulless politician of the sort that the nation began to project onto Washington after the Nixon scandal. His aims represent what many perceive to be the “standard” aims of politicians, as far as most politically apathetic voters are concerned. They see the pursuit of power as an inherent evil, and Underwood offers up a pure form of that evil. As he explains his plans to the viewer (with fourth-wall-breaking monologues that serve to implicate us in his plans), it becomes clear that even his moments of apparent goodness are calculated and fraught with unchecked evil.
Underwood spends two seasons leaving a sizable trail of destroyed lives and severed relationships in his wake, emphasizing above all the inherent danger of pursuing power for its own sake. While he causes great personal and bodily harm to those unfortunate enough to cross his path, he primarily damanges his own soul, evidenced by the callousness of his interactions with both God and man. Underwood’s concern for them is flippant and headstrong, and he is determined to avoid any form of human concern or care for another, a quality he frames as weakness.
When Jesus pointed out that it was hard for a rich man to enter heaven, he was talking not so much about wealth as he was about power, since money is one primary means of power in a fallen world. A man in a powerful position would simply see no need for a savior. “I pray to myself, for myself,” Underwood says to us and God, while kneeling at the alter in a massive church sanctuary. Elsewhere, in a smaller, more remote church, a more desperate and helpless Rachel Posner (whose life has been ruined by Underwood’s agenda) finds peace and hope in her sincerely Christian congregation. In a particularly moving scene that takes place during a worship service, churchgoers sing words of complete and utter trust to God: “So close, I believe. You're holding me now. In Your hands I belong. You'll never let me go.” Truly the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.
The President in the world of ABC’s Scandal is more harmless, utterly generic, and yet seems to have somehow won the loyalty of those closest to him. Most crucially, he’s won the loyalty of the brilliant attorney and political “fixer,” Olivia Pope, who throughout the series oscillates between fighting for President Fitzgerald Grant and fighting against the temptations he represents. The affair between President Grant and Olivia Pope lurks throughout the series to represent their utter moral weakness. Both Olivia Pope and President Grant possess their own versions of power, but as the series progresses, it’s clear that they are only as strong as their moral fortitude, which is to say not at all.
As a result, we’re treated to a three-season-long demonstration of just how mundane and disappointing power can be when it is treated recklessly. President Grant accomplishes little to nothing during his term and is ultimately exposed as a broken vessel of a man. Olivia Pope’s presumed “white hat,” trusted by her staff (referred to throughout the series as “gladiators”), is increasingly tainted by moral failure.
President Grant only wants to live with his mistress in a giant house in the middle of nowhere—such a brutally ironic, misguided, and self-centered ambition that it makes the fact of his presidency morally untenable. After all, how would he afford the house and the privacy if he wasn’t President in the first place? Grant, at this stage, may have the power to make it happen, but he no longer has the admiration and loyalty of others that would make such a plan viable in the long term.
Still, if we pay close enough attention, we can see in each of these shows a glimmer of hope for those of us who aim to one day be “great.” While these leaders tie greatness to power, the real legacy of greatness belongs to those who embrace weakness and display loyalty to those with fewer opportunities. We see this played out in The West Wing’s “Big Block of Cheese Day,” House of Cards’s ancillary characters who offer one another faint glimmers of hope, and Scandal’s genuine “white hat” moments, when Pope is determined to defend an innocent party pro bono, merely because no one else would or could.
All three demonstrate, intentionally or otherwise, the illusory nature of genuine power, and the disastrous consequences of taking perceived power for granted. For House of Cards’s Underwood, power is a prize with no genuine value, a plaque or a trophy won for a game that has been fixed. For President Grant, power is limited by moral failure, and as a result, utterly unattainable by imperfect human beings. President Bartlet makes all the right decisions, but not without veering to and fro in contentious conversations with his staff.
Our real Presidents are conglomerations of these three. So are the rest of us, whenever we’re given a semblance of power. Like Bartlet, we try to do our best, stumbling through decision-making with noble intentions. Like Underwood, we idolize ourselves and our ambitions, grasping futilely after our own glory. And like Grant, we strive for moral perfection, only to fail ourselves and those around us.
These characters don’t exist, but the concepts they represent are real: humanity is utterly frail, incapable of attaining power or handling it rightly. Bartlet’s greatness was based wholly on fate, particularly the whims of the scriptwriter, who had determined beforehand that Bartlet must always be right. The West Wing’s script was written, after all, to glorify Jed Bartlet. In the real world, our script-writer has a whole other purpose in mind.