Today’s Bible and Pop Culture essay comes from Bachelor of Arts student Jessica Marshall. Jessica has just finished her second year of her Arts degree, majoring in history and English. She was born in Manchester, in the UK, but has lived in Auckland since she was ten years old. Jessica hopes to be a journalist once she finishes her studies. Like Christiane Amanpour and Kate Adie, she is passionate about wanting to hold people responsible in the court of public opinion, in order to ‘right the wrongs’ that we see too much of in the world.
Jessica chose the wonderful TV series West Wing as the focus of her essay, and her evaluation of President Bartlet as a contemporary saviour figure casts a cynical eye at contemporary US politics. Enjoy.
Josiah ‘Jed’ Bartlet: The Fictional Messiah U.S. Politics Always Needed
At this point in time, politics in the United States has become a mockery of the democracy it claims to stand for. So, in the time of such a travesty, we must look to fiction. The television series The West Wing (1999-2006) created and written by Aaron Sorkin has the greatest example of a President (fictional or otherwise) that the United States could hope for in Josiah ‘Jed’ Bartlet. As one writer put it, ‘One of the only things that has made life worth living for left-leaning liberals … is the small fact that, for one hour … [George W. Bush] is not the president’ (Clark 2005, 224). And unlike most presidential characters, Bartlet is multi-faceted and layered (Parry-Giles and Parry-Giles 2006, 153). In this essay, I will argue that Bartlet shares a number of features with the figure of the contemporary messiah or ‘supersaviour’, who Jewett and Lawrence identify in their discussion of the American Monomyth (2002). I will do this through analysing several storylines and episodes of West Wing, including the Pilot (1×01), the shooting storyline (1×22 – 2×02), the episode ‘Two Cathedrals’ (2×22) and, finally, the parabolic episode ‘Isaac and Ishmael’ (3×01).
There’s a phrase that came out of the protest movements of the 1960s: ‘The personal is political.’ It seems to be a sentiment that has continued over the decades, even going so far as to enter into the fictional White House, making itself pronounced in the pilot episode of The West Wing. One character, Josh Lyman (played by Bradley Whitford), deals with a faux pas with regards to the religious right. This is how our hero, President Jed Bartlet, is brought into the picture. Josh is forced to apologise for the faux pas. In the midst of this meeting, after another staffer – Toby – becomes frustrated with the recipient of the apology over racist comments she has made towards Jews, a debate over the Ten Commandments breaks out between Toby and one member of the religious right, John Van Dyke. Van Dyke makes the claim that ‘Honour thy father’ (Exod. 20.3) is the First Commandment. An argument ensues between Toby and Van Dyke in which Toby explains that ‘Honour thy father’ is, in fact, the Third Commandment, to which Van Dyke responds with the question ‘Then what’s the First Commandment?’ At this moment, President Bartlet walks into the room, answering the question correctly. Here, Bartlet combines the selfless zeal of a man who rescues a staff member he should have fired for a one-liner (Josh) with the zealous saviour who rescues the White House from evil. Yet, perhaps his behaviour is not entirely selfless (Lawrence and Jewett 2002, 6). Bartlet’s granddaughter, twelve-years-old, received a death threat from an over-zealous fringe group going by the name ‘The Lambs of God’, all because – in an article – she stated her opinions on reproductive rights. Bartlet, having already corrected them on the order of the Ten Commandments, then poses a question to those present in the room: ‘From what part of holy scripture do you suppose The Lambs of God drew their divine inspiration when they sent my twelve-year-old granddaughter a bloody Raggedy Ann doll with a knife through its throat?’ It is in this scene that Bartlet proves one of his messianic superpowers, according to the American Monomyth: his intelligence (Primiano 2009, 99). It shows up again and again throughout the show’s run, but the message is always the same: you would be best advised not to go up against him in a battle of wits.
Perhaps the best storyline that Aaron Sorkin ever tackled as the writer on The West Wing – and one of its most controversial – was that of the Roslyn shooting. Here, we see two resurrections. In flashback, we see the resurrection of Bartlet the politician and in the present we see the resurrection of Bartlet’s staffer, Josh Lyman. While the second resurrection is important to another storyline, one I will discuss later, the first is the more interesting. At the beginning of the flashback, it looks like Senator John Hoynes (the Vice-President in present time) will win the Democratic nomination. Bartlet, on the other hand, is the dark horse, the outside candidate no one expects to succeed. As a woman in a New Hampshire bar says to Toby, ‘I didn’t even know Bartlet was running’ (‘In The Shadow of Two Gunmen Part One’ 2000). In the following scene, however, Bartlet again proves his intelligence; during a speech in Nashua, New Hampshire, he talks about the economy and taxes – not exactly a rousing topic, let’s face it. But then, when asked about a vote in Congress over the New England Dairy Farming Compact (he voted against a bill that would have given dairy farmers more money, but caused the price of milk to rise), Bartlet responds simply with ‘Yeah, I screwed you on that.’ It is one of those turning points for an election campaign. Normally, these occur during the presidential debates after the parties have announced their nominees (for example, Kennedy vs. Nixon in 1960 or Bush vs. Dukakis in 1988; see Spacey and Brunetti 2016). That this could happen so early in a campaign that next to no one had even heard of is nothing short of miraculous. He continues, saying, ‘One in five children live in the most abject, dangerous, hopeless, backbreaking, gut-wrenching poverty… I voted against the bill ‘cause I didn’t want it to be hard for people to buy milk… if you expect anything different from the President… I suggest you vote for somebody else.’ It’s an honesty we rarely see in politicians, it’s endearing, it makes you want to vote for the guy who admits that he stiffed his own constituents and it raises from the dead a campaign few even knew existed. In reviving the campaign with one speech, Bartlet resurrects his career as a politician and, therefore, himself.
One of the most heart-breaking moments in this television series comes when President Bartlet yells at God in the National Cathedral in the episode entitled ‘Two Cathedrals’ (2001). It is flashback-heavy episode, as Bartlet deals with his grief for his secretary and friend, Mrs Landingham who has died in a car crash. The speech (a chunk of which is in Latin – the language of the traditional Catholic mass) is juxtaposed against Bartlet’s memories of his abusive father. In doing this, it pits God against Bartlet’s own father. The anger Bartlet felt towards his father for years is mixed in with his ire towards God in his moments of grief: ‘”You can’t conceive nor can it, the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God,” says Graham Greene. I don’t know whose ass he was kissing there ‘cause I think you’re just vindictive. What was Josh Lyman? A warning shot? That was my son.’ He all but screams, the sound of his voice echoing across the empty Cathedral. His anger is easily understandable. Christians are reminded that people are all ‘God’s children’ (Rom 8.16). Yet, even the most devoted of followers, the most desperate to please the father, cannot do so and even if they try their best to do so, God still takes and takes and takes. He’s taken Mrs Landingham, the only parental figure Bartlet had left, handed him a case of remitting-relapsing Multiple Sclerosis, and had his staffer, Josh Lyman – a man Bartlet has come to see as his own son – shot. Why? Bartlet, himself, asks this question: ‘What did I ever do to [Jesus] but praise his glory and praise his name?’ Confused and angry, Bartlet admits that he has lied to the American public with regards to his MS diagnosis, but surely that makes him like Jesus sending his disciples away before his crucifixion – he does not want the people around him to suffer because of who he is or the suffering he has to endure.
The final episode I wish to talk about is the first episode of the third season, entitled ‘Isaac and Ishmael’ (2001). Officially, a special rather than an actual episode (at the beginning of the episode, the cast inform us that it does not fit in with the normal plot). It was filmed and aired within the four weeks after the events of September 11th, a point at which the majority of the entertainment industry avoided referencing even the idea of violence, let alone terrorism (Jones and Dionisopoulos 2004, 21). It is parabolic, as students from the Presidential Classroom programme wind up in the midst of what the Secret Service calls a ‘Crash’ (meaning that the White House has been breached). For a small moment, as his staffers – Josh Lyman, Toby Ziegler, Sam Seaborn, C.J. Cregg and Charlie Young – are in the midst of fielding questions regarding terrorism, President Bartlet walks in with his wife, Abbey. Here, he is asked by a student whether or not there is something noble in being a martyr. To this, he replies with the line ‘A martyr would rather suffer death at the hands of an oppressor than renounce his beliefs. Killing yourself and innocent people to make a point is sick, twisted, brutal, dumb-ass murder… we don’t need martyrs right now. We need heroes. A hero would die for his country but he’d much rather live for it.’ Here, Bartlet crosses borders. His speech comes at a time in American history when they need a leader, a time when the Patriot Act was being passed with little to no forethought as to what it could do. In giving this speech, the United States is given a leader, a hero to quote the character himself, one who will not simply go to war because it is the easier option. The speech reminds people of who the enemy really is: not one particular race (as had already been explained earlier in the episode) or a particular religion but anyone who commits heinous attacks against America and its people. It is Bartlet’s sermon on the Mount moment, but instead of preaching to the poor and downtrodden, he preaches to those who form the future of society: children. Instead of saying ‘Blessed are the poor for theirs is the kingdom in heaven,’ he says that America needs a hero and, like any Messiah, allows for the phrase ‘and I am it’ to go unsaid (Matt. 5.3).
There was a reason I subtitled this essay ‘The Fictional Messiah U.S. Politics Always Needed’ and, yes, it has to do with my own political leanings. It also has to do with the fact that Jed Bartlet, a creation of Aaron Sorkin’s own mind, represents the best of all the Presidents of American history. He’s honest like Lincoln, witty like Kennedy and Reagan. There’s an idea known as the cult of leadership and it’s normally applied to dictators like Stalin or Kim Jong-Il. In The West Wing, I believe we have a leader, albeit fictional, we could add to a list of political messiahs who actually deserve the cult of leadership. He is honest, a reviver of dead political campaigns, intelligent and he does not even realise that he is a hero. Jed Bartlet is the man America needs to bring it back from the abyss.
All references to the Biblical Text are from the New International Version (NIV).
Clark, J. Elizabeth. ‘The Bartlet Administration and Contemporary Populism in NBC’s The West Wing’ in Michael Hammond and Lucy Mazdon (Eds.), The Contemporary Television Series. Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 2005. Pp.224-243
Jones, Robert and George N. Dionisopoulos, ‘Scripting a Tragedy: The “Isaac and Ishmael” Episode of The West Wing as Parable’ Popular Communication Vol.2 (1), 2004, pp.21-40
Parry-Giles, Trevor and Shawn Parry-Giles. The Prime-Time Presidency: The West Wing and U.S. Nationalism. Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 2006
Primiano, Leonard N. ‘”For What I Have Done and What I Have Failed To Do”: Vernacular Catholicism and The West Wing’ in Diane H. Winston (Ed.), Small Screen, Big Picture: Television and Lived Religion. Waco, Texas. Baylor University Press, 2009, pp. 99-123
Shelton Lawrence, John and Robert Jewett. The Myth of the American Superhero. Grand Rapids, W.B. Eerdmans, 2002.
‘George H.W. Bush vs. Michael Dukakis’ Race for the White House, directed by David Bartlett, produced by Kevin Spacey and Dana Brunetti. United States: CNN, 2016.
‘Government Surveillance’ Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. Produced by Liz Stanton. United States: Avalon Television and Partially Important Productions, 2015
‘In The Shadow of Two Gunmen Part One’ The West Wing, directed by Thomas Schlamme, written by Aaron Sorkin. United States: NBC, 2000
‘Isaac and Ishmael’ The West Wing. Directed by Christopher Misiano, written by Aaron Sorkin. United States: NBC, 2001.
‘John F. Kennedy vs. Richard Nixon’ Race for the White House, directed by Christopher Spencer, produced by Kevin Spacey and Dana Brunetti. United States: CNN, 2016‘Pilot’ The West Wing. TV Series. Directed by Thomas Schlamme. Written by Aaron Sorkin. United States: NBC, 1999.
‘Pilot’ The West Wing. TV Series. Directed by Thomas Schlamme. Written by Aaron Sorkin. United States: NBC, 1999.
‘Two Cathedrals’ The West Wing. Directed by Thomas Schlamme, written by Aaron Sorkin. United States: NBC, 2001.
 John Shelton Lawrence and Robert Jewett. The Myth of the American Superhero, Grand Rapids, W.B. Eerdmans, 2002, p.6