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Popular Culture & Politics

The West Wing: Dramatizing the Public Policymaking Process

Some types of governmental activity—for instance, law enforcement—have been easily transformed into dramatic entertainment by the popular media. But until recently, no one in Hollywood was prepared to use the ongoing dramas of public policymaking as a basis for a movie or TV series. That changed in 1999, when NBC added The West Wing to its weekly TV fare.

The show, which aired its final episode in May 2006, starred Martin Sheen as President Josiah “Jed” Bartlet, a PhD and Nobel laureate in economics from New Hampshire, who won the 1998 presidential election (remember, this is fiction!) with 48 percent of the popular vote. Surrounding him in the first season was a cast of characters drawn from the personalities we often see in the national headlines, including a trusted chief of staff and his deputy; a director of communications (and his deputy), whose job it is to promote a positive image of the president and his administration; a political consultant; a press secretary (and her staff); the president’s family (his physician wife and three daughters); a vice president who is regarded as a political threat to the president; members of the press corps; high-ranking military personnel; various members of Congress; lobbyists; diplomats; and an entourage who make up the White House staff closest to the president.

Like other popular TV series, The West Wing relied on the personal problems and interpersonal relationships of its characters to tie together the plots of various episodes. The chief of staff is an alcoholic with a past, the press secretary is “involved” with one of the White House reporters, and a key staffer has had a relationship with a call girl. But what was unique about the series was how well it seemed to portray the dynamics of public policymaking on some very controversial issues.

In one episode during its inaugural season, titled “Five Votes Down,” the White House is engaged in frantic efforts to rally five votes to pass gun control legislation that the president favors. They have seventy-two hours before the vote. Part of the elaborate wheeling and dealing involves one member of Congress—the head of the Black Congressional Caucus—who is voting against the bill not because he opposes gun control, but because this legislation isn’t strong enough. The White House chief of staff, Leo McGarry, meets privately with the congressman to plead his case, but Representative Richardson will have none of it. He criticizes the president’s team for failing to back the stronger provisions he supports.

In the end, Richardson will not budge, and the White House turns for support to those favoring a watered-down version of the law. The legislation passes, but only after the staff reluctantly seeks help from the vice president, who will take credit for the bill’s passage.

Much to the delight of many “political junkies” who grew attached to the show during its premier season, other episodes of The West Wing touched on real-world issues from the death penalty and campaign finance reform to the use of sampling in the national census and funding for public broadcasting.

The West Wing was, of course, fictional entertainment. As anyone who has worked in government will tell you, public policymaking is not always as dramatic as portrayed in the series. Most laws are passed and policies made without much controversy and without some of the trade-offs and compromises that many Americans dislike. Nevertheless, by focusing on the clash of power, priorities, and interests over the most visible issues, this unique show has helped establish a new and more refreshing image of the complex dynamics involved in passing laws and making policies.

Sources: Information on the show can be found at a number of websites. The official site was located at www.nbc.com/The_West_Wing/, but information on all episodes can be found at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_West_Wing.

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