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Jewish World Review Sept. 30, 2002 / 24 Tishrei, 5763

John Leo

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Left Side Story | The West Wing is back for its fourth season on NBC, trailing a lot of newly won Emmys, high expectations, and, of course, controversy. It really is a terrific show, with unusually strong dialogue, humor, and dramatic impact. I thought the second-season scene with President Bartlet arguing bitterly with G-d (in Latin, no less) over the problem of evil and the death of a beloved secretary was a daring one that worked well.

The problem with the show, not a new one, is that your enjoyment is likely to be enhanced if you happen to view politics through the eyes of Barbra Streisand. On last week's opening show, when two White House aides were introduced to a few schoolgirls in Indiana, one girl asked, "How many unborn babies did you guys kill today?" This is the show's established level of subtlety in dealing with abortion. In the pilot for the show, an antiabortion zealot sent the president's granddaughter a Raggedy Ann doll with a knife through its throat.

Scripts explain many abstract political issues with care and fairness, from census sampling to demands that the penny be abolished. But the fairness routinely disappears on hot-button cultural and partisan issues. A conservative Christian minister visiting the White House doesn't even know the Ten Commandments. He is accompanied by a family-values woman who delivers sly antisemitic remarks. A Dr. Laura figure is so obnoxious that she refuses to stand when President Bartlet enters the room. Because of her Bible-based opposition to homosexuality, she is crudely humiliated by the president in front of a hundred guests. The nitwit Republican governor of Florida, Bartlet's opponent in his campaign for re-election, is a cartoon version of President Bush right out of Saturday Night Live. He thinks Mexico is in NATO and favors the blockading of the Port of Miami.

No cons. Aaron Sorkin, the creator and chief writer of the show, says he orders up four pro and four con arguments for every issue in the scripts. If so, on every liberal issue, the four cons are apparently thrown away unused. Sorkin has been frank about using the show for political effect. "Weak-willed Democrats have been the enemy as much as the Republicans have been the enemy on this show," he said. Under pressure to demonstrate some fairness, he hired two former aides to Republican presidents, Peggy Noonan and Marlin Fitzwater, as consultants. Noonan says she wrote a script segment on affirmative action featuring C. J. Cregg, Bartlet's press secretary, explaining that her father's life was shattered when he was shunted aside in favor of less qualified nonwhite job seekers. In Sorkin's rewrite, C. J.'s father wasn't shattered or a victim of government. He was doing just fine, "in part because that's how Aaron thinks about affirmative action, and it's his show," Noonan wrote in the Wall Street Journal. Noonan said that she likes Sorkin and likes the show, though she considers it "a left-wing nocturnal emission."

Sorkin seems committed to rewriting the Clinton years, and Clinton's character as well. He launched this ambitious project as scriptwriter for The American President, a solid and enjoyable 1995 movie. Here the Clinton figure isn't a married man playing with the interns. He is a widower pilloried by a despicable caricature of Bob Dole for falling in love with an environmental lobbyist who once attended a rally where an American flag was burned.

On The West Wing, the president is censured by Congress for lying. But here the lie is much more forgivable than most of those Clinton is famous for-Bartlet merely concealed that he has multiple sclerosis. The fictional surgeon general gets in trouble not for being an utter fool, as Joycelyn Elders was, but for favoring legal marijuana. The "cookie" issue of 1992-Hillary Clinton's sarcastic reference to people who expected her to stay at home and bake cookies-was replayed last week as a demonstration against Bartlet's wife by lunatic women with aprons and rolling pins. In large ways and small, Sorkin is supplanting the real Clinton presidency with a fantasy version of what might have been. The refurbished Clinton doesn't cut corners, sell pardons, or take polls to figure out what to do. He has no trouble keeping his pants on during office hours. Here, somewhat late, is a President Clinton we can trust.

Sorkin's project looks forward as well as backward. One supporter calls him "the loyal opposition" in politics today. If this means that he is a more effective promoter of liberal Democratic talking points than anyone in or around Washington, the statement is surely right. Al Gore and Tom Daschle can't do what President Bartlet can. The West Wing is a one-sided view of Washington as seen from a one-party town-Hollywood. The show is very good. And it's smoothly unfair, week after week.

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JWR contributor John Leo's latest book is Incorrect Thoughts: Notes on Our Wayward Culture. Send your comments by clicking here.


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