On the Lasting Impact of The West Wing

Claire Handscombe

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For Sarah McConnell, it started like this: living in Japan more than a decade ago, she was desperate for something in English to watch. Anything. It so happened that the something she found lying around her apartment was a set of West Wing DVDs. A few moments in, she hit pause: “did you see how long that shot was?” she asked her husband. “It blew me away,” she says now, speaking with something like awe.

It’s more than twenty years since The West Wing first graced our screens. In 1999, we were worrying about the Millennium Bug, paying $700 for DVD players, and using pagers. When we talked about “the Congressional Facebook”, it was without a hint of irony or any reference to a website that, for good or ill, is now a ubiquitous part of life. 9/11 had yet to cast a shadow over the world and cause America to deeply re-evaluate its own identity.

And yet, the show continues to have an impact that is arguably unique. If you live or work in DC, references to it are inescapable. People have walked down the aisle to the theme music. Or they’ve named children, pets, GPS systems, and even an iPhone app after the characters. Or they’ve started Twitter accounts as the characters to continue the storyline and comment on current political events. Or they credit it for closer relationships with their family members or a way out of depression.

The West Wing was unlike anything that had been on television before. Witty, fast-paced, and intelligent, it followed the lives of White House staffers, in much the same way as, for example, ER follows the lives of doctors. Created by Aaron Sorkin, it refused to talk down to its viewers but instead drew them into a complex world that they often knew nothing about, and somehow made it mesmerising.

When Sarah unwrapped her DVDs half-way across the world, she fell in love: on some level, hers is a story that has been replicated time and time again down the years since The West Wing’s emblematic drum roll first began ringing out from our televisions. At the time, Sarah loved her consulting work, but as she watched The West Wing, she became “insanely jealous” of the characters. Here were people who were competent, capable, driven, and incredibly human. They were who she wanted to be. She wanted more from life. She wanted to contribute to the world.

“I’m a lawyer,” says Josh Lyman in one of the episodes. “Everybody here’s a lawyer.” And something clicked in Sarah’s brain. She, too, could get a law degree, and maybe one day work at the White House. It took her a few years to make the transition to law school. She already had a Master’s and an MBA as well as a (thankfully supportive) husband. But she made it to UC Davis eventually, and as part of that was offered the chance to apply for an internship at the White House.

On Sarah’s first day of orientation for the new intake of interns in the Obama White House, they were asked a question: how many of you would say that The West Wing is your favourite show? Only about a quarter of the people raised their hands. “It used to be everybody,” was the comment. “And I’ll bet,” Sarah told me in 2014, “and this is just my speculation, that if you go now, that it’s probably everybody again. But I was there at some weird in-between time.” The West Wing had not been released on Netflix, and most White House interns — the majority in their early twenties — had been too young to watch it when it was on TV.

By contrast, Jay Carney, formerly President Obama’s Press Secretary, was in his early thirties when the show started airing in 1999. A tweet of his to Allison Janney, who played his fictional counterpart on The West Wing, delighted fellow fans. He welcomed her to Twitter, and asked if she would teach him to lip-synch “the Jackal”, as she does in the show.

The flurry of Twitter excitement was possibly even greater in January 2014 when Jay Carney reunited two of the show’s actors, Bradley Whitford and Josh Malina, for a sketch to promote the White House’s upcoming Big Block of Cheese Day, itself an idea taken from the show. In 1837, President Andrew Jackson published an official invitation for the masses to drop by for a piece of 1400-pound block of cheese and mingle with high-level officials. In the spirit of this, from time to time Aaron Sorkin’s fictional White House opened its doors to ordinary people with questions to ask and projects to lobby for, like a wolves-only highway or a switch to the Peters Projection map, which gives a more correct understanding of the size of countries relative to each other.

The West Wing taught its viewers things of political and social importance, like the relative size of those countries. Even without the retrospect from which we now benefit, at the time people knew of its effectiveness at getting a message across. In an interview at Cambridge University in 2013, Bradley Whitford — who won an Emmy for his portrayal of the brilliant and wounded Deputy Chief of Staff, Josh Lyman — explained. “I would get lobbied by lobbyists when I went to Washington… they wanted to get their particular issues on the show, because we could get…21 million people to watch a 46-minute show where you went through, basically, the pros and cons of whether or not the decennial census should be done, you know, by actual polling or computer modelling.” He adds with his trademark dimpled grin, “And, you know, Rob Lowe got laid.” In other words, it was entertaining too. Not to mention aesthetically pleasing.

So the show taught us. It inspired us. But it impacted us in other ways too. Asked on Twitter how the show has changed their lives, people are eager to tell of their experiences. “I chose to become a US citizen rather than remain a resident alien,” says one. “I wanted to participate.” Another responds, “Knowledge of US politics based solely on WW helped me bluff my way through my Oxford interview”. Another claimed to quote from it daily; someone posts a picture of his to-do list: to motivate himself, he types “What’s next?” at the top — a catchphrase imbued with something like majestic significance as used by the fictional President Bartlet.

Juli Weiner’s 2012 article for Vanity Fair, “West Wing Babies”, describes Josh Lyman as the archetypal role model for wannabe superstaffers. But there are countless other role models in the show, too. Referring to a Republican who is drafted into Sorkin’s Democratic White House, someone tweeted me, “Ainsley Hayes made me want to engage in debate, rather than just shout at people who have different political or economic views”. And Sam Seaborn, the young Communications Director played by Rob Lowe, has also had a profound influence on people.

Jan Sonneveld, for example, has been a high-level speechwriter in the Dutch government. “It puts the idealism back into what you’re doing”, he says of the show. He draws comfort from it, too. Late in the first season, Sam Seaborn forgets to change the opening of a speech which has been moved indoors due to inclement weather. The President, speaking within four walls, begins: “As I look out on this magnificent vista…” Jan says “that kind of mistake are the mistakes I make. In that way it resembles real life.” On another occasion, when Sam has written a moving speech after a bombing in a school, one of the characters asks him when he wrote the last part. “In the car,” he responds, and that too Jan appreciates. He says that it’s in the “most crowded, most stupid busy moments you have to write the most powerful stuff”.

Back in the Obama days, I asked Jan what he thought made the show so appealing. “It was the right series at the right moment,” he says. “It put the idealism back into a decade with negative views.” A similar opinion was expressed by David Burstein, the CEO and Co-Founder of Run for America, an initiative to bring a new generation of talent into the American political system. He says that The West Wing showed cynical people that “there was something in politics that was worth engaging in, that was worth fighting for, that was worth being part of.” He goes on to say, “It stands alone among television shows, in that it actually had real meaningful impact on our nation.” For him, The West Wing fed his interest on politics as he grew up and went through college. It was “a place where he could go to meditate on politics” and importantly was also the catalyst for “social experiences with my friends around politics”. The social aspect is an important one, too. Jennifer O’Neil, who worked on the Hill as a Scheduler to a Republican Senator, says that “if you’re at any kind of Capitol Hill happy hour, reception, gathering, there’s gonna be a West Wing reference and everybody’s gonna get it”.

Jennifer also told me that without the show, she wouldn’t have got that job. She grew up watching it with her family: she, her brother and her parents would buy each other the various seasons for Christmas and birthdays and bundle onto the couch to share the experience. “It just really inspired a lot of dialogue and conversations between all of us. We ended up having these smart political conversations about some of it and about public service that I don’t think would have happened without the show.” When her school offered the opportunity to study in DC for a semester, she eagerly took it, which she says she would have had “zero interest in” were it not for The West Wing. That was the move which set the direction of her future career.

As for Sarah, her internship was everything she had dreamed it would be. “I got to live out my fantasy,” she says. She loved the work itself — and when occasionally she was given less interesting work, “that is where working at the White House makes you feel better about life. Because you’re not just doing this for anybody. You’re doing this for the President of the United States.” And for the extra motivation when it came to getting up in the morning, she had the West Wing theme tune set up as her alarm. “It was so much more like The West Wing than I thought it would really be,” she says. “The White House really was filled with incredibly, incredibly smart people. You know the way that Sorkin writes — people just have facts at their hands… The White House is seriously filled with people who can talk like that.”

On one occasion, a person for whom she had written a memo didn’t have time to read it. “Can you walk with me to my next meeting and tell me about it?” this person asked, a line that could have — and often did — come straight from the show. Later in the Obama years, when Sarah rewatched The West Wing — as fans do, over and over again — and were exterior shots, she would find herself thinking, “I worked there. I did that. I can feel happy all over again.”

Much as she would love to, she doesn’t think she’ll ever get to go back there, though. Her priorities have changed: after years of trying, she got pregnant as soon as she left the White House. “I had given up. And then, I don’t know, I was just so happy after working at the White House I got pregnant.” That’s unprovable, of course, but is it so hard to believe that a show that has changed so many lives could indirectly be responsible for starting another?

Excerpted from Walk With Us: How The West Wing Changed Our Lives, by Claire Handscombe, first published in 2016. Some names have been changed.

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Claire Handscombe is a British writer who moved to Washington, DC, in 2012, ostensibly to study for an MFA in Creative Writing, but really, let’s be honest, because of an obsession with The West Wing. She is the host of the Brit Lit Podcast, a monthly show about news and views from UK books and publishing; the author of Unscripted, a novel about a young woman with a celebrity crush and a determined plan; and the editor of Walk With Us: How The West Wing Changed Our Lives.

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