Ed Driscoll

The Not Ready for Prime Time White House

Peggy Noonan, who worked under Presidents Reagan and Bush #41 on how she reacted to when the Lewinsky scandal broke, altering the course of Bill Clinton’s presidency, and how the TV series The West Wing might be influencing Obama’s:

If you work for American presidents who are good men, you will inevitably carry forward in your head the assumption that American presidents will be good men. Your expectations will be toward high personal standards and normality. If you started out working for leaders who are not good men, on the other hand, you can go forward with a cynicism and suspicion that are perhaps more appropriate to your era.

The second thing the Horowitz story made me think of is this. I have remarked, and I think others have also, on the broad, deep impact of the television drama “The West Wing.” It spawned a generation of Washington-based television dramas. (Interestingly, they have become increasingly dark.) It also inspired a generation of young people to go to Washington and work in politics. I always thought the show gave young people a sense of the excitement of work, of being a professional and of being part of something that could make things better.

But it also gave them a sense of how things are done in Washington. And here the show’s impact was not entirely beneficial, because people do not—should not—relate to each other in Washington as they do on TV. “The West Wing” was a television show—it was show business—and it had to conform to the rules of drama and entertainment, building tension and inventing situations that wouldn’t really happen in real life.

Once when I briefly worked on the show, there was a scene in which the press secretary confronts the president and tells him off about some issue. Then she turned her back and walked out. I wrote a note to the creator, Aaron Sorkin, and said, Aaron, press secretaries don’t upbraid presidents in this way, and they don’t punctuate their point by turning their backs and storming out. I cannot remember his reply, but it was probably along the lines of, “In TV they do!”

“The West Wing” was so groundbreaking, and had in so many ways such a benign impact. But I wonder if it didn’t give an entire generation the impression that how you do it on a TV drama is how you do it in real life.

Last night’s post on Ferguson mentioned Tom Wolfe’s “information ricochet” theory, which he expounded upon further in another interview, quoted here. Basically, the theory boils down to real life inspires hugely popular movie or TV series, which makes loads more stuff up for drama and exciting visuals, which in-turn influences real life. Rinse and repeat. Plenty of mafiosos watched the myths and visual poetry of The Godfather (which Obama has claimed is his favorite movie, incidentally) and thought “Whoa, so that’s how we do it, boys!” So why wouldn’t the seven seasons of The West Wing have a similar impact on wannabe politicians and their staffers, who probably watch them as intently as geeks watch Star Trek reruns or women watched Sex In the City for pointers?

Related: Sadly, police departments may have also viewed The Godfather as a how-to guide.