Bartlet for America: Life lessons from the West Wing

By Tiffany Burrows

For politicos, watching The West Wing remains a rite of passage, despite the final episode Tomorrow (Season 7, Episode 22) airing over 15 years ago. 

I have watched The West Wing from start to finish twice (that is nothing, I hear the die-hard fans say at the back) and am half-way through re-watching it a third time. Watching now after so much has changed politically both in the US and here at home has given me a new perspective. With its instantly recognisable opening credits and drumbeats, its iconic use of the walk and talk, and the dedication to terrible brown suits, The West Wing as a series has been the bastion of liberal politics (critiqued by some as ‘The Left Wing’) and comparisons between Congressman Santos’ (fictional) campaign of 2006 and Obama’s 2008 run have been drawn. For those who don’t know, 

The West Wing is an American political drama set in, you guessed it, the west wing of the White House, and focusing on the administration of President Josiah Bartlet and his senior team of aides. 

Below, I’ve written about core messages writer Aaron Sorkin may have been trying to tell us (and I’ve tried to keep spoilers to a minimum).

Integrity and accountability should be the order of the day

A lesson that is dispersed throughout the series is that even in politics, integrity and accountability matters. The President’s confession that withholding information about his health from the public was wrong is a masterclass in accepting the consequences of your actions.

“I was wrong. I was, I was just… I was wrong. Come on, we know that. Lots of times we don’t know what right or wrong is, but lots of times we do, and come on… this is one… We foster, we obfuscate, we rationalize. “Everybody does it”, that’s what we say. So we come to occupy a moral safe house where everyone’s to blame, so no one’s guilty.”

What I have always admired about this quote is the willingness to embrace the vulnerability that comes from admitting you made a mistake, however big that mistake is. There is no merit in making excuses, blaming other people, or trying to shirk responsibility. Sometimes, you just have to admit you got something wrong, which the First Lady Dr Bartlet tried to sneak a conjunctive adverb into an apology: “No. No ‘however’. Just be wrong. Just stand there in your wrongness and be wrong and get used to it”. 

Kindness is king

If there is one thing The West Wing portrays better than anything else, it is the importance of relationships – with colleagues, with friends, and with family, and how important kindness is to forging them. From Charlie’s decision to become a mentor to Anthony Marcus who lost his Big Brother, to Donna’s declaration that she would run through red lights for her boss if he was in an accident to Toby arranging a military funeral for a homeless veteran – all these acts are underpinned by kindness.

The president’s Chief of Staff Leo McGarry epitomises the significance of West Wing relationships when he shares this analogy with his Deputy Josh Lyman:

This guy’s walkin’ down a street when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep he can’t get out. A doctor passes by and the guy shouts up, “Hey you! Can you help me out?” The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole, and moves on. Then a priest comes along and the guy shouts up, “Father, I’m down in this hole; can you help me out?” The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a friend walks by. “Hey, Joe, it’s me. Can ya help me out?” And the friend jumps in the hole. Our guy says, “Are ya stupid? Now we’re both down here.” The friend says, “Yeah, but I’ve been down here before and I know the way out.” 

Listen to those you disagree with

Nowhere is the lesson of listening to people who disagree with you more evident than in Series 2, when Leo McGarry hires Ainsley Hayes – a Republican – to join the White House Counsel’s office, much to the aggrievance of the rest of the senior staff (superbly summed up by the below exchange).

Ainsley Hayes: How many people on your staff assumed that I was ambitious, mean, and stupid?

Leo McGarry: None. C.J. Cregg thinks you kill your pets. You don’t do that, do you?

Throughout her time in The West Wing, Ainsley, (later described by one colleague as being politically “slightly to the right of the Kaiser”) refuses to use personal attacks to critique a person’s political view and embodies the ability to disagree whilst doing so with respect, a lesson we could all do well to learn from. She also provided a regular challenge to the conventional Democratic ways of thinking, representing a position that would often go unheard. Or put in a better way by Bartlet himself: “I am the president of the United States. Not the president of people who agree with me.” 

Another example of guaranteeing fresh perspective on things was the recurring Big Block of Cheese Day in the show. Once a year, senior White House staffers were encouraged to accept meetings with people who normally would not receive an audience with them to pitch their unconventional ideas from wolf-only highways to UFO conspiracies. 

So as I continue re-watching the West Wing, I’ll strive to live by the above lessons, and when in doubt, ask, what would President Bartlet do?