back page: The Case Against Jed Bartlet

I like pretty much everything about “West Wing”: the witty banter among attractive young White House staffers, the complexity of the political and diplomatic problems it dramatizes, the way it shows the relentless pace of events in Washington and the desperate improvisations that often turn into settled policy. But in this month of alternate-universe political conventions (if you don’t get that you probably don’t watch “West Wing” enough), I am publicly throwing my support for the Democratic nomination behind John Hoynes (chillingly played by Tim Matheson) — the sneaky, ideologically treacherous vice president.

Let me make it plain: I like everything about “West Wing” except its central figure, President Jed Bartlet. We need to dump him now. Hoynes for president!

Clearly I represent a minority in the Democratic Party, both fictional and otherwise. Indeed, “BARTLET FOR PRESIDENT” stickers were spotted on California freeways during the 2000 election. “I’d be Josiah Bartlet’s vice presidential candidate any day,” Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle told reporters last June. Bartlet is played by one of America’s most likeable actors, Martin Sheen. And series creator Aaron Sorkin seems to have intended Bartlet to be the figure most liberals wish Clinton had been: brilliant (Bartlet is a Nobel-prize winning economist), devout (a Notre Dame graduate, he is a faithful Catholic who confesses on his knees in the Oval Office) and scrupulously honest.

But where Clinton married sleazy relativism to infectious charm, Bartlet is an insufferable prig. And where Clinton was impeached for a trivial personal peccadillo, Bartlet has committed “high crimes and misdemeanors.”

Consider Bartlet’s alleged brilliance. Television and movies seem to dramatize intelligence only as an eye-glazing tendency to recite obscure facts (think of Matt Damon quoting Gordon Wood and winning Minnie Driver’s heart in “Good Will Hunting”). Asked to respond to a plea for increased veterans’ benefits, for example, Bartlet drones on about the origins of the term “red tape”; offered a draft speech by a geeky NASA flack, he humiliates the man by dissecting his grammar.

And smart or not, Bartlet is unbelievably smug. This is the kind of boss who returns from India with chess sets for his senior staff — and then insists on beating each of them while lecturing on strategy. He is the kind of social boor who invites a radio columnist to the White House, then tongue-lashes her publicly (making use of his show-off “erudition”). He is the kind of snob who sends his young African-American aide out to buy him a new carving knife, then with mock humility presents the orphaned young man with his own knife in exchange — cast for the Bartlet family by Paul Revere himself.

All that would not be enough to deny Bartlet renomination (though it would be enough for me to root for him to spend more time off-screen). But “West Wing’s” writers have managed to make Bartlet far more guilty than Clinton ever was. Instead of a merely personal moral failing, Bartlet has concealed the fact that he has multiple sclerosis. The writers apparently think that this is a flaw that we will sympathize with, with none of the seaminess of Clinton’s lies (sworn and unsworn) about his sad sexual hijinks.

They’re wrong. MS is a progressive and incurable disease of the central nervous system. It has the potential to cause not only fatigue and physical impairment but cognitive decline and severe depression. It’s certainly possible that someone with MS could be a good president, but there’s no question that such a person should not conceal the fact from the voters. From FDR’s failing health and Yalta to Ronald Reagan’s mental decline during his second term, concealed illness in the White House has done more harm to the republic than the sex lives of all the presidents combined.

Yet Bartlet has decided that he deserves the vindication of a second term. And that brings me to the third thing I find so annoying about this man: his self-absorption. Having endangered his party and the country, Bartlet now sees the re-election decision as a matter of his own personal fulfillment. It’s hardly surprising: Most politicians are egomaniacs, and Bartlet walks around asking people questions such as, “Which Plantagenet do I remind you of?” But he shows no awareness that for most of us, watching the show in our darkened homes, real politics actually isn’t primarily about the individual yearnings of politicos.

Bartlet sees the universe in terms of Bartlet and its unfairness to him. When his beloved secretary is killed in a car crash, he delivers a repulsive lecture to God, calling him a “feckless thug” for taking away someone Bartlet needs — as if his own decisions, including one to permit assassination of a foreign official, had not brought death to many people who wanted to live at least as much as poor Mrs. Landingham.

Later in the same episode, Bartlet impulsively decides that he will run for re-election, despite everything — chiefly because Mrs. Landingham’s ghost dares him to prove he’s not a chicken. And so the nation and the world become the arena for Jed Bartlet’s personal redemption.

I fear the next season of “West Wing” will center around the nonedifying spectacle of this narcissistic oaf bullying the world into seconding his daily affirmations — a prospect so grim that I am going to try to head it off by starting a draft for Hoynes. True, Hoynes is a trimmer who has sold out to the gun lobby; true, he is a recovering alcoholic; true, his word is his junk bond. In other words, he is a fairly realistic picture of the leadership America can expect; and at least he isn’t self-righteous about it.

“Why not the best?” Jimmy Carter asked in 1976. I haven’t figured out the answer — but if Bartlet represents our picture of the best, then, like former Sen. Roman Hruska, I think it’s time for mediocrity to have its chance at bat. Hoynes will give it to us. And think what a fine ex-president Jed Bartlet will make. S

Garrett Epps teaches constitutional law at the University of Oregon law school.

Reprinted with permission from The American Prospect Online: Aug. 7, 2002. The American Prospect, 5 Broad St., Boston, Mass. 02109. All rights reserved.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.


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