Wishful Thinking in ‘West Wing’

Hail to the chief.

If the one in the White House and his staff are as proficient and inspiring as their fictional counterparts were in Wednesday night’s special terrorism-themed episode of “The West Wing,” Americans are well-served in the grief-driven, war-footing aftermath of Sept. 11.

Are George W. Bush and the people around him this good? Please let them be this good.

But not this preachy.

Customary spin and photo ops aside, the public has no way of knowing for certain how well or poorly a president performs for the nation in private until biographers and tell-all authors weigh in. On NBC, Josiah Bartlet’s weekly crescendos of strength, deep thought and character fill that void neatly, he and his idealistic staff wearing the halos of heroes and walking just a bit taller than other earthlings while delivering one throat lump after another.

Take Wednesday’s hastily crafted hour, titled “Isaac and Ishmael” and set in the present period following last month’s terrorist strikes.

Series creator Aaron Sorkin’s morality play had a group of visiting high school students trapped inside the White House during a tense lockdown ordered in response to a possible security breach that turned out to be a false alarm. As Chief of Staff Leo McGarry (John Spencer) separately grilled a Muslim American White House worker (Ajay Naidu) wrongly suspected of terrorist links, other staff members took turns lecturing the students and themselves about the roots and nature of terrorism and how a wounded U.S. should respond to it. The president (Martin Sheen) and first lady (Stockard Channing) ultimately dropped by, too, leaving behind silver bullets of profundity.

Named after a biblical tale relating Islam and Judaism, “Isaac and Ishmael” was strongest when confronting McGarry with his own latent prejudice as he interrogated the young White House worker, whose name just happened to match an alias used by a suspected Arab terrorist. As for the rest, well ...


Credit Sorkin with using his series to react swiftly and boldly to address the present difficulty with a risky story stating, above all, how innocent Americans can be victimized by ethnic and religious profiling--in this case, those of Eastern and Middle Eastern origin--in these jittery times.

Hail to NBC, too, for agreeing to run this “storytelling aberration,” as cast member Bradley Whitford called it during a special introduction, in advance of next week’s fall opener that picks up where last season’s ending cliffhanger left off. And also for vowing to give the episode’s future profits to charities whose phone numbers were displayed in place of opening credits.

Noble aims aside, though “Isaac and Ishmael” was doomed creatively from the start, its continuity shattered by the jolting, invasive shrillness of NBC’s commercials and its promos for fall premieres. Sensitive entreaties that ended each act were crushed by loud sales pitches that immediately followed, with NBC failing to use bumpers to distance them from the story. Well, this is commercial TV.

Beyond that, the episode in most ways was a microcosm of the show’s strengths, but also its weaknesses. It was intelligent, acutely relevant and well acted, yet populated as always mostly by characters on speedspeak with one glib, witty voice, as if Sorkin were a ventriloquist.

One by one Bartlet’s staffers popped in on the students, pearls of plain-spoken erudition on their facile tongues. From Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman (Whitford), a lesson in religion: “Islamic extremist is to Islamic as KKK is to Christianity.” From Communications Director Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff): “Bad people cannot be recognized on sight. There’s no point trying.” From his deputy, Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe): Terrorism has a “100%" failure rate (which ignored the horrific terrorist success of those crippling attacks on New York’s World Trade Center). From the president’s African American personal aide Charlie Young (Dule Hill), this addendum to Sam calling poverty abroad “an incubator” for crime: “Same as it is here.” From press secretary C.J. Cregg (Allison Janney), on U.S. reliance on spy technology: “We need humans.”

That human homily, Bartlet, tooled in three-fourths into the episode, in just 80 seconds managing to light the room and the eyes of all present with his blinding wattage of wisdom. “We don’t need martyrs right now, we need heroes,” he told the students. “A hero would die for his country, but he’d much rather live for it.”

No wonder that Americans who at times think badly of their elected leaders find hope in “The West Wing,” where the White House’s judgment may be flawed occasionally, but never its motives or its heart, this rush of good intentions and compassion providing an antidote to lingering cynicism about partisan and self-serving politics. Even when much of President Clinton’s behavior brought them pain, for example, Americans could seek sanctuary in the straighter-shooting Oval Office of “The West Wing.”

How powerful and lasting is this juxtaposition of art and reality? What will be its impact, if any, in the volatile days to come as the U.S. and its allies conduct their war against terrorism?

This is guesswork, of course, and Bartlet is a New Hampshire Democrat and Bush a Texas Republican. There is a theory, however, that so deluged are Americans by information in this technological age that making distinctions becomes ever harder.

Will the fictional president’s reputation for honor and high competence rub off on the actual occupant of the White House, with many of the show’s viewers merging the two figures, if subliminally?

Will the opposite happen, with some viewers seeing the eloquent Bartlet as the standard to be met, and Bush coming up short, just as real attorneys have sometimes disappointed observers by not living up to Perry Mason?

More likely is a third scenario: Americans will separate the two men, judging Bush on what he does or doesn’t do while seeing “The West Wing” for what it is, a lush fantasy that epitomizes a nation’s wishful thinking.


Howard Rosenberg’s column appears Mondays and Fridays. He can be contacted by e-mail at