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Political Fictions: Unraveling America at a West Wing Fan Convention

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Arts & Culture

In times of chaos, we turn to narrative. Throughout the tumult of the George W. Bush years, the preferred palliative for the demoralized left was Aaron Sorkin’s The West Winga political drama about the lives of White House staffers in the administration of Josiah Bartlet, a fictional Democratic president played by Martin Sheen. The show, which originally aired in the late nineties and early aughts, depicted a world in which government could serve as an engine of good, an instrument of change. Across the series, the staff brokered peace in the Middle East, dreamt up free college education, and unraveled the gordian knot of entitlements like Medicare and Social Security. In the wake of 9/11, as the U.S. was contending with the specter of domestic terror and gearing up for an unpopular war in Iraq, the show’s viewership tilted toward seventeen million.

The storyline I found most compelling as a young, aspiring author was about the presidential speechwriters. Throughout the show, Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff) and Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe) sequestered themselves in the darkened catacombs of the White House, armed with nothing more than legal pads and Bic pens, testing out snatches of oratory on each other as they sought to draft a comprehensive narrative about America. “Tonight, what began in the commons of Concord, Massachusetts,” President Bartlet intones in a campaign speech, “as an alliance of farmers and workers, of cobblers and tinsmiths, of statesmen and students, of mothers and wives, of men and boys, lives two centuries later.” It was this heady idealism—the notion that America itself was merely a story, a fragile narrative continually authored by each administration—that led me to see politics as a noble calling, a redoubtable vocation. The depth of my fandom revealed itself in ways that were oblique but no less shameful. Throughout college, I festooned the walls of my bedroom with the same framed “Don’t Tread on Me” flag that Seaborn keeps in his office and, on weekends, I recreationally performed critical exegeses on the rhetoric of presidential inaugurals. After watching the 2004 Democratic National Convention, during which Barack Obama delivered a speech that had an elegance rivaling anything Aaron Sorkin had written, I wrote an effusive fan letter and shipped it off to his senate office in Chicago. A few weeks later, a staffer called and suggested that I apply for an internship, which led, somehow, to me spending the next several years in Illinois, toiling first in Obama’s senate office and later in the headquarters of his presidential campaign. As an intern in the correspondence department, I was fairly low on the totem pole and had exactly zero sway in shaping the candidate’s agenda. Instead, my job involved wading through thousands of letters from ordinary voters, an epistolary tangle out of which I gleaned a national longing for a different kind of leader, one who could connect the bloody doldrums of the nation’s past to the hopeful arc of its future. After long train rides home to my garden apartment on the north side of Chicago, I binged-watched episodes of The West Wing, often falling asleep to the DVD menu’s soaring orchestral theme.

Now, in 2018, that time of my life seems lacquered with the same gauzy-edged cinematography as Sorkin’s televisual fantasia. Eventually, I abandoned my aspirations to be a presidential speechwriter and enrolled in an M.F.A. program for creative writing. In retrospect, it seems a slender mercy to have escaped the political arena before the presidency devolved into the blustering Twitter volleys of our current mogul-in-chief. But over the past several years, The West Wing has made a swift and surprising comeback. Owing in part to the convenience of Netflix, the show had been enjoying a resurgence among younger viewers, who weren’t yet born when the series first aired. “The West Wing Weekly,” a podcast devoted to rehashing episodes and extolling the virtues of the Bartlet administration, garnered two and a half million downloads by the end of 2016. So seismic was this revival that earlier this year rumors began circulating about NBC possibly rebooting The West Wing, with Aaron Sorkin wrangling his old crew to serve as a foil to the Trump White House.

Last summer, I learned that these new West Wing fans, or self-described “Wingnuts,” along with the original Aaron Sorkin faithfuls, were planning to commemorate the show with its first-ever fan convention in Bethesda, Maryland. There would be panel discussions about public policy, a West Wing Trivial Pursuit night, plus a mock state dinner. When I showed my wife the event’s Kickstarter page, which was soundtracked by the show’s triumphant theme, she said, with no small amount of grief in her voice, “Please tell me you’re not thinking about going.” 

*

Wood-paneled and fern-studded, the Marriott Hotel & Conference Center in Bethesda is thronged with excited Wingnuts. Retrieving welcome packets and plastic lanyards from the lobby desk, the fans trade introductions with the restive energy of long-lost friends and peruse the daily schedule with palpable elation. Eventually, a bovine line forms outside the White Flynn Amphitheater, where the welcome session will soon start. It is difficult to describe why a cadre of policy wonks would strike anyone as an alluring premise for a fan convention. “Hey, guys, let’s cosplay a senior staff meeting,” is something no one says on Reddit. My older brother, who prefers action-based entertainment, likes to disdainfully point out that The West Wing is nothing more than, “just a bunch of old guys walking around in suits.” But in the Kickstarter promotion for the West Wing Weekend, Elisa Birdseye, its programming director, underscored the event’s fundamental appeal, “Don’t we all want to go somewhere where Jed Bartlet is our president?”

The lure of escapism is echoed by Clay Dockery, the head organizer for the West Wing Weekend, who hustles to the front of the amphitheater wearing a suit and a red tie, one that has been snipped with scissors just below the solar plexus. The maimed Windsor is an homage to episode 6 from season 4 (entitled “Game On”) in which the first lady amputates the president’s necktie as a prank just before he goes on stage for a reelection debate. I can’t say what’s more embarrassing—that someone would actually do this or that I, a supposed journalist and thus an innocent bystander, can spot the reference.

Slouching at a chestnut lectern, Dockery looks like like a sullen, middle-aged version of Harry Potter—squat, portly, nervously adjusting his owl-eyed glasses—and explains that the West Wing Weekend should be an occasion to revel in Sorkin’s genius and make friends with like-minded people. Then, almost as afterthought, he says the conference will also “send people home with tools for organizing,” which is why, in addition to the fan programming, there will be panels hosted by NGOs like EMILY’s List, Emerge America, and Wolf PAC. Ultimately, this will prove perfunctory. Such events will be woefully under-attended, with the Wingnuts proving far more keen about press secretary cosplay or “West Wing Speed Dating” than lectures on civic engagement. Once the introductions are over, Dockery looks momentarily flummoxed, unsure how to close out the session. “Should we sing the theme?” one audience member yells. There’s a wave of sheepish laughter until one bold attendee starts humming, quite tunefully, the opening bars of the anthem. One by one, the Wingnuts join in until eventually the entire auditorium resounds in song.

It is difficult to summarize my first day at the convention. Should I tell you about the episode-watching session where a coterie of Wingnuts discussed season 1, episode 19 (“Let Bartlet Be Bartlet”) with the exegetical rigor of a grad seminar? Would you like to hear about the table read I attended, where your fellow citizens sat on folding chairs and paged through West Wing scripts, delivering Sorkin’s breakneck dialogue with enviable thespian élan?  Should I tell you about the West Wing–themed punk band called Steph Anderson and the Two Bartlets, whose pink-haired lead singer abused a maroon Stratocaster and screamed into the microphone lyrics like “I serve at the pleasure of the president”? Because, sadly, I could, friends. I was there, your humble correspondent.

Again and again throughout the first day of the convention, the Wingnuts keep blathering about the analgesic properties of the show, a needed tonic for our current political turmoil. I meet a white-haired man named Lou, who owns a Sparkle Car Wash in suburban Pennsylvania and who has been a die-hard fan of The West Wing ever since it first aired. These days he likes to stream episodes on repeat, and has seen the entire series “probably fifty or sixty times.” “My daughter recently got married,” he tells me, “and she used The West Wing theme song for the father-daughter dance.” In a hotel corridor, a bearded and ponytailed landscaper named Greg, who traveled here from Cleveland, tells me that he watches two episodes of the show every night, the televisual equivalent of an Ambien. “I can’t go to bed without a little bit of it. And I just keep going through the seasons. For me, The West Wing isn’t just an entertainment anymore. It’s the way we wish it were, and the way we hope it will be the next morning.”

To my mind, this desperation for an alternative political narrative reveals something crucial about the governing styles of the last three presidents. If The West Wing snagged Emmys and garnered large audiences during the Bush years, and if the show witnessed a resurgence during the scandal-laden first term of the Trump administration, it seems to suggest something peculiar about Obama, apart from his status as a liberal Democrat. Perhaps it owes something to the fact that Obama was himself a gifted narrator—who, before running for office, penned a New York Times best-selling memoir, Dreams from My Father, and who arguably won the election for his ability to tell Americans a particular kind of story. Not only did his narrative flatter the yearnings of the Left, but it also had the power to loosen Republican strongholds throughout middle America. In the last days of the Obama administration, when asked whether he and the president had tried to manufacture a new American narrative about politics and public service, Jon Favreau, the president’s head speechwriter, said, “We saw that as our entire job.”

*

“Governments require make-believe,” the historian Edmund S. Morgan writes in Inventing the People, a trenchant monograph on the origins of democracy. “Make believe that the people have a voice or make believe that the representatives of the people are the people … Make believe that all men are equal or make believe that they are not.” In other words, nations are nothing more than fickle acts of imagination—America itself, a story written across three centuries. We rarely acknowledge the fictitious underpinnings of our nation’s founding, but the self-evident truths that Jefferson inscribed in the Declaration were not actually axiomatic but dependent upon a willful suspension of disbelief. (After all, the putative equality was extended only to the rights of white male landowners).

It is not at all coincidental that the most venerated presidents throughout history were fluent in certain literary tropes and thus operated as cunning dramatic narrators: Reagan, with his tinsel-town charm and his grandfatherly locutions; Kennedy, with his rousing calls to national service; Roosevelt, with his palliative fireside chats, the oratorical approximation of a bedtime story. What these stewards of the American ideal understood better than their blundering counterparts was that in order to govern effectively, one needed to remain cognizant of the motifs and themes that animate the American fable—optimism, inclusivity, hard work, and progress—a narrative expansive enough to hold together the disparate factions of the nation.

For vast swaths of the electorate, part of the comfort we took in the Obama presidency was knowing that we were in the hands of an adept storyteller—one who admired the poetry of Derek Walcott, one who understood the rhetorical valence of singing “Amazing Grace.” No matter the national turmoil or geopolitical crisis, we felt confident that, with Obama at the helm, the plot would invariably swerve toward a denouement of decency and justice. Such soliloquies, it must be acknowledged, also went some way toward obscuring Obama’s more unsightly policies—the ramping usage of drone warfare, the cozying up to Wall Street. Still, it was a dramatic, televisual narrative about America—a Hegelian unfolding of hope and change. By contrast, Donald Trump, Steve Bannon, and Kellyanne Conway have proved dexterous postmodernists, deconstructing not just the narrative about America that Obama and his speechwriters had spent the previous eight years fashioning, but also the rudiments of narrative itself—plot, coherence, truth, and meaning. Whereas Obama followed the rules of Aristotelian drama and thus resembled a president from Aaron Sorkin’s imagination, Trump obeys the antinarratives of reality television, where what matters most is not coherence or logical progression, but chaos and titillation.

*

On the night of the mock state dinner and presidential ball, the Wingnuts stroll into the conference center, looking stuffy and uncomfortable in tuxedos and ball gowns. Before dinner, we’re treated to a concert by a Croatian cellist named Dorotea Racz, who opens her set with Bach’s “Suite in G Major.” The song is an allusion to a West Wing episode called “Noel,” in which deputy chief of staff Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford) attends a state dinner featuring Yo-Yo Ma and has a PTSD-grade flashback of getting shot during an assassination attempt on the president. As the song enters its second movement, it becomes difficult for me not to sense a slippage in the meridians, an imbrication between the real and the imaginary. After all, sitting beside me in this Bethesda ballroom are a half dozen of former West Wing cast members, whose job required them to portray White House staffers and who doubtlessly recall filming this episode on a mock set in Los Angeles. But also in the audience are former White House staffers—real ones, like Stephen Goodin, who was Bill Clinton’s presidential aide, and Bob Lehrman, who was chief speechwriter for Al Gore—who doubtlessly attended real state dinners. That I’m also rubbing shoulders with hundreds of ordinary Americans who are gussied up like White House officials sends me into a vertigo of epistemological uncertainty, where the differences between reality and its simulacrum are so dizzying and complex that even Baudrillard would’ve blanched. It occurs to me that as much as the West Wing Weekend has promised an escape from the grisly realities of our political moment, the ontological blur actually feels like a faithful reenactment of the last election, where the reigns of the nation were given over to someone whom we knew mostly from television.

*

At the state dinner, I sit next to David Kusnet, President Clinton’s chief speechwriter from 1992 to 1995. It seems important to stress that this is the real David Kusnet—not someone cosplaying him. He’d been invited to be on a panel called “Real Life in The West Wing” and decided to stay for the gratis dinner. As we gobble down our salads, one of the tuxedoed Wingnuts at the table says, “Okay, here’s a subject for a panel: How would Game of Thrones be different if Aaron Sorkin had written it?”

With his tortoiseshell glasses and gray wisps of Einstein hair, Kusnet has the rumpled appearance of a long-suffering professor. We trade potted biographies and discuss the midterm elections, then I ask him what he makes of the West Wing Weekend. This causes him to smile, a bit ruefully. “Well,” he says, “like so much else in America, it’s nostalgia for a time that never really existed.” Kusnet then launches into an impromptu colloquium on the political semantics of the last three decades, something he’s uniquely equipped to do, since this is the guy who literally wrote the book on twentieth-century political discourse. His manifesto, Speaking American: How Democrats Can Win In The Nineties was, at one time, the vade mecum for leftists and was so rife with crackling rhetorical advice that Clinton hired him after its publication. Kusnet tells me that the American narrative reached poetic heights with Obama, who mixed the argot of progressivism with the homiletics of the civil rights movement and, as a result, became an incarnation of American progress. Merely by casting a vote for Obama, he says, Americans felt themselves pushing the national story from injustice toward tolerance. Over and again, Obama reminded us that electing “a skinny guy with big ears and a funny name” was proof enough of our national betterment.

However effective this rhetoric proved to be at the ballot box, it obscured the economic and social issues that Clinton had faced in the early nineties, when small towns across America were ravaged by deindustrialization. For a Democrat running in such a climate, the linguistic task became one of convincing the rural quadrants of America—places like Little Rock, Arkansas—that reeducation and job training were exigent and necessary. “So Clinton couldn’t talk like a character from The West Wing,” Kusnet says. Instead, Clinton’s orations were steeped in the idioms of Southern moderates, like the midcentury North Carolina senator Frank Porter Graham, a down-home vernacular with which Kusnet had to familiarize himself. “Clinton used to give speeches to high school classes in Arkansas,” Kusnet says, “where he’d say, Do you know that kids in Korea do two hours of math homework a night? Now, why the hell do you think you’re going to make more money than they are when an employer can hire them or hire you? So, that’s how he’d talk to people, but he’d do it like he was on their side … So that’s a complicated narrative … I mean, he really believed that you couldn’t get New Deal liberalism in a globalized economy and a fractured society. That’s sounds like a point you’d make in a seminar at the Kennedy School or something. But to explain that as someone whose rhetoric came out of the folksiest politics of Arkansas and not scare people off, that was impressive. But he could do it. I mean, he could really do it.”

Doubtless this could be taken as one staffer’s rosy-tinged hagiography, as we haven’t yet talked about his boss’s centrist compromises (NAFTA) or his queasy philandering (not to mention his equivocations about what the definition of is is, etc.). Still, it could be argued that Clinton was the last politician to place the grim realities of globalization at the forefront of his campaign, as evidenced by James Carville’s twangy, exasperated dictum, immortalized in the classic 1993 political documentary The War Room: “It’s the economy, stupid.” Kusnet tells me that whatever happens after Trump, the narrative will inexorably return to the difficulties Clinton faced in the nineties. “We might not get Clinton’s solutions, but we will face his problems.”

As I loosen the knot of my Windsor and toss an arm over the back of a nearby chair, I realize that the tenor of our discussion is not at all dissimilar from the big-think strategy sessions that Toby Zeigler and Sam Seaborn used to have on episodes of The West Wing. It must be admitted that, for all my cynicism about the conference, if anyone could be accused of succumbing to the escapist appeal of cosplay, it was me.

It grows late, and most of the Wingnuts have repaired to the dance floor, boogying with the half-hearted enthusiasm of middle schoolers at a sock hop. As “Blame It On The Bossa Nova” pours through the speakers, I ask Kusnet what he’s been up to these days, and he tells me that while he’s spent the last few years writing for a PR firm, he’s recently returned to his own writing, a transition that has been bumpy to say the least. “It’s strange to say for a man nearing his seventies, but I suppose I’m trying to find my voice.”

It’s only when we stand to leave that I recognize the metaphorical weight of his confession. Here is a man who once served as America’s voice and who is now struggling to find his narrative persona at an hour of national disarray. It is a literary predicament that seems to embody our own existential crisis: Is America’s story one of tolerance and progress? Or is it a scrambled, fragmentary tale, the meaning of which is uncertain? I suppose I’d been hoping that Kusnet would offer me a soothing interpretation, a new way of stitching together the plot twists of the last few years, but sadly he seems just as boggled and lost as I am.

We shake hands and part ways, with me wandering toward the dance floor and him heading directly for the exits. A phalanx of Wingnuts are socializing in the hallway, talking passionately about squandered storylines, and suddenly, I feel like a fraud in my blue suit and press pass. It’s easy to sneer at the escapism at the West Wing Weekend, but I can’t help thinking these citizens understand something crucial about the American experiment. At a time when the country seems incurably divided, when news chyrons have become a grim pageant of scandals and Twitter rants, the fervor for Sorkin’s feel-good chimera reveals the degree to which American optimism relies, in part, on the sustainment of certain narratives, ones that have the power to flip rural Midwestern districts and elect unlikely candidates. Whether anyone has the skill or gumption to write this story is still unclear, but it feels like we’re heading toward the final chapter, and the hero’s destiny is uncertain.

 

Barrett Swanson was the Halls Emerging Artist Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute of Creative Writing and was the winner of a 2015 Pushcart Prize. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in The New York Times Magazine, The Believer, The New Republic, American Short Fiction, The New Republic, The Point, and Best American Travel Writing 2018, among other places.