Bartlet for America
Last week an inventive reporter from the New York Times convinced TV writer Aaron Sorkin, creator of the West Wing, to transcribe a fictional meeting between his television character, President Bartlet, and Democratic nominee Barack Obama.
There’s a cute kind of symmetry here. While Sorkin left the West Wing at the close of the fourth season, the show’s writers would later invent a Democratic successor to Bartlet (played by Jimmy Smits) who was, allegedly, based on Obama himself back in 2004.
Sorkin uses the fictional meeting in a playful manner before, at the end, launching Bartlet into one of his vehement, righteous and smart soliloquies.
“When I speak I try to lead with inspiration and aptitude,” says Obama. “How is that a liability?”
“Because the idea of American exceptionalism doesn’t extend to Americans being exceptional,” replies Sorkin, through Bartlet. “If you excelled academically and are able to casually use 690 SAT words then you might as well have the press shoot video of you giving the finger to the Statue of Liberty while the Dixie Chicks sing the University of the Taliban fight song. The people who want English to be the official language of the United States are uncomfortable with their leaders being fluent in it.”
Reportedly, earlier this year there were campaigners standing outside the White House with banners that read: ‘Bartlet for President’, the enduring character (played by Martin Sheen) every idealist’s natural choice for the leader of the free world.
Romantics might even wish that Sheen himself – the actor – had run for president. Allison Janney, his West Wing co-star once said: “Wouldn’t it be something if Martin Sheen could be our president in real life?” A glance over his record as a fierce human rights campaigner and sensible, commanding political voice reveals why.
Sheen is certainly a man who puts his money where his mouth is. “By the time he went to India for Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi in 1981,” one feature on the man reads, “he was picking beggars up off the street and inviting them to ride around in his taxis. He donated his $200,000 salary from the film to a variety of non-violent charities, from Mother Teresa to the Quakers. As he said at the time, ‘How can you make money off Gandhi?’”
A statement Sheen made at the Baltimore funeral of outspoken priest, Philip Berrigan, back in 2003 included the line: “We’re addicted to war. That’s what we love best, and what we do best… I’m just appalled, and I’m horribly depressed by what we’re faced with. We’re going to pay dearly for it, with our humanity and with our conscience.” So he has a touch of the prophetic about him too.
Neverthess, Sheen’s criminal record might be a barrier to nomination: he’s been arrested no less than 70 times for involvement in protests over issues ranging from nuclear disarmament to homelessness. Moreover, it’s a job he’s not even interested in. “President Bartlet is a creation of Aaron Sorkin, our wonderful writer,” he once said. “I would be far more liberal and progressive if I were president, which would never ever happen, thank God.”
We’ve been working through The Complete West Wing this year, one episode a day, with the hope of finishing the seventh season on the day of the US election. We’re a little behind schedule (end of season 5 with only a month to go) but it’s been fascinating to see how so much of what the series addresses is timeless in its relevance.