The West Wing on the Small Screen

“No wonder your president has to be an actor, he’s gotta look good on television.”(Dr. Emmett Brown responding to the idea of Ronald Reagan as President of the United States, Back to the Future 1985)

When the television became a household standard in the 1950s, the sudden change in image culture dramatically affected the Presidental elections, as noted by Christopher Llyod’s 1955 Emmett Brown character in Back to the Future.  Although the television has impacted American politics in myriad ways, the Obama/McCain race had a particularly unusual relationship to visual culture.  Still airing on mainstream channels in the UK, a Telegraph blog, The Guardian, and BBC News all examined The West Wing’s semi-fictional election between veteran Republican candidate Arnold Vinick and Latino newcomer Democrat Matthew Santos during the program’s final season in 2006; the New York Times also looked at the relationship through a summary of the articles, as well as through a hypothetical conversation between Barack Obama and The West Wing‘s predominant president Jed Bartlett created by original West Wing writer Aaron Sorkin.  Slate also posted a visual comparison more focused on a comparison of the primary season (via Comedy Central).

I watched every episode of The West Wing after being introduced to it via Netflix about two years ago.  I agree with most in that the early years of the show (written by Sorkin) were the best.  However, one of the most fascinating episodes was the debate between Senators Vinick and Santos.  This episode was prepared for by the main actors as though it were an actual presidential debate. It was filmed in real time and with largely improvised dialogue.  Visually, it looked like a debate through basic visual cues including a brief intrusion of the “second” video camera filming the debate, the “NBC Live” logo, and “live TV” stylized lighting and frame positioning.

As the articles linked to above explain, the Matthew Santos character was based on Barack Obama after his speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention; Arnold Vinick resulted from several different people, including the John McCain of earlier years.  Hence, the television program’s fictional presidential race was inspired by real individuals and anticipated significant aspects of the real election.  The West Wing’s writers clearly understood American politics.  From a theoretical standpoint however, the question of the reality/fiction dichotomy becomes more interesting upon considering how Vinick was originally written to win the election. This end result was changed upon the death of John Spencer (playing Santos’s running-mate Leo McGarry), in order to avoid ending the series in entirely depressing circumstances.

Hans Belting examines the reality/fiction question as it relates to visual culture through his essay “Photography and Painting: Thomas Struth’s Museum Photographs“:

“The impression of unreality confuses me, since the museum’s visitors are the only reality captured in the photo.  The painting, by contrast, is a fiction, but it has a secure location in our imagination, a place that is more secure than anything real could ever lay claim to.” (Museum Photographs 5)

Thomas Struth. Kunsthistorisches Museum III Wien. 1989. Chromogenic print , 145 cm x 187 cm.  Photo: Thomas Svab. Image from

Even more so than paintings, televised imagery is secure in the minds of mainstream, contemporary viewers.  While less imaginary than traditional art forms (and most often not falling under the definition of art), the images on the small screen have their own significance through their prevalence, and occasionally, their unexpected relevance.