The West Wing is the Clinton administration as progressives wished it had been. Where Clinton is unseemly, President Bartlet (Martin Sheen) is merely unhealthy (his scandal isn't sexual, but a failure to disclose that he suffers from MS). The tension on The West Wing is never merely about re-election; rather, is is about the struggle to do good in a government structure beset by partisan politicking.
What defines The West Wing in its early years is the fact that Bartlet's staff, the intrepid heroes of the show, never succumb to cynicism. Deputy chief of staff Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford) harangues recalcitrant members of congress and then returns to his office to playfully debate his assistant Donna Moss (Janel Moloney) on American tax policy. Deputy director of communications Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe) refuses to end a relationship with a sex worker despite the public relations storm that is certain to result (his motivations seem more preoccupied with an adherence to moral high ground than a real enthusiasm for the friendship, but that is another issue). Press Secretary C.J. Cregg is reduced to tears over the plight of women in the fictional country of Qumar (the portrayal of women in the show is an important subject that will be addressed in a future post). Communications director Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff) presents a surly and cynical demeanour that masks a deeply ethical resolve. It is he who lambastes Bartlet upon learning that he has concealed his disease from the American public. Finally, the President himself is a Nobel Prize-winning economist, difficult but also brilliant and kind. He is a man who loses sleep over the death of every American citizen (although citizenship status, it should be noted, is a prerequisite for the onset of this empathic insomnia).
Perhaps the quintessential story arc of the entire series comes in episode nineteen of the first season. The staff is depressed as they realize that they are becoming increasingly preoccupied with making the careful move rather than pursuing the principles and policies they campaigned upon. The sequence culminates with chief of staff Leo McGarry (John Spencer) exhorting both the President and the rest of the staff to "let Bartlet be Bartlet." The scene is designed to restore our faith in the Bartlet administration and the American political system that the show represents. Check out the full sequence in the YouTube video below.
Thus, while there is little question that The West Wing views the landscape of U.S. politics through rose-coloured glasses, it is nevertheless a useful barometer of the issues and concerns that mark the real life nation. It is born of a historical moment in which politicians could still be seen as heroes and increasingly begins to flounder as George W. Bush and his war on terror put the lie to this romanticized view of government and leadership.
For, the political scenes in The Good Wife have none of the idealistic charm of The West Wing. Peter Florrick's key staffer in his campaign to return to office is Eli Gold (Alan Cumming). Like Josh Lyman and Toby Ziegler, Gold is clearly identified as a Jew whose principal religion is politics. It is difficult not to see him as an allusion to his predecessors in the earlier show. This is where the similarities end, however. Gold is a calculating Machiavellian who, in the face of crisis, is quick to remind us, again and again, that, "it's not the scandal, it's the cover up" that gets candidates in the deepest trouble. As this mantra illustrates, his concerns tend to be at least two degrees removed from the substantive.
Gold is a spin doctor extraordinaire whose job is to get Florrick elected, period. In The West Wing, Lyman wonders whether he should hire Charlie Young (Dulé Hill) as an aide to the President because, although exceptionally qualified and deserving, the young man is black. Lyman worries about the representational impact of hiring a black man to wait upon a white President. What message will that send?
Gold, too, confronts race and representation, but with none of Lyman's qualms. His job is to craftily manipulate voters and he revels in his capacity to do so. Realizing he needs to appeal to racist white Chicagoans, Gold organizes campaign ads that feature exclusively white faces and discourages Florrick's son Zach's (Graham Phillips) black girlfriend from attending political functions. Racist? Certainly, but that's exactly the point.
What are we to make then of the pervasive cynicism that haunts The Good Wife? To some extent it is surprising given that the beginning of the show overlapped with Barack Obama's politics of hope. Indeed, it is no coincidence I think that the show is set in the President's Chicago. In fact, explicit references are made to members of the cabinet throughout the series, as if to remind us that Obama should be on our minds as we watch this world of greed and corruption.
The Good Wife is a repudiation of The West Wing and all that it tells us about politics. It is a shot across the bow at the optimism of the Bartlet and Obama regimes, and it is much needed for that. This is a show that my friend could comfortably watch, knowing that it paints an accurate picture of how difficult is is to enact change from within a political process stained by lobbying and gamesmanship.
Yet, this is not a complete endorsement of the show. The tone of The Good Wife is not always dark. Rather, if it is characterized by anything, it is a sort of mischief and fun. There is a delight in the hi jinx of Gold and the ruthlessness of Alicia's firm, Lockhart Gardner.
I think this is the true cynicism at the heart of The Good Wife. It marks a fundamental shift in the attitude of American politics. This is not merely a rejection of the optimism at the heart of the terms of Clinton, Bartlet, and especially Obama, or of the political process itself. Instead, it shifts our attention to the spectacle that politics have become; a game to be played, no different from a sporting event. The fun we have with the show is the fun we also experience watching CNN and John Stewart.
Whether intentionally or not, The Good Wife delights and then taunts by revealing how that very delight is responsible for the collapse of functional American politics. In a sense, through its irresistibly satisfying seaminess and its ability to seductively entice us to embrace a world of broken and corrupt politics, it reflects back the ways in which we have come to contribute to our own demise.
The Good Wife is, I think, the kind of show President Bartlet would never deign to watch. But, then, in the world of The Good Wife, President Bartlet could never actually exist.
It's hard not to see a great deal of similarity between this world and our own.