I was a single mum in Rome during the heyday of The West Wing, so I come to this a couple of decades and a few elections short, but my quarantine catch-up came as a shock. One of the smartest examples of TV writing I have ever seen, The West Wing has a captivating cast of actors, innovative filming, and brilliantly-crafted plots which are full of insights into US history and politics – all put at the service of aggressively promoting a pro-abortion, pro-gay marriage agenda.
The shock was not that Hollywood was placing its thumb heavily on the scales (again), but that the Commander-in-Chief of this campaign, President Josiah Bartlet, was written as a rosary-praying, Notre Dame-educated, Latin-speaking Catholic.
The show ran from 1999-2006 and won countless awards (29 Emmys alone) for screenwriting, acting and direction. As an art historian, I appreciate the masterful manipulation of words and images, but as a Catholic I am appalled to see how this series worked to normalise same-sex marriage and abortion among my co-religionists.
Aaron Sorkin, the show’s creator, developed a brilliant bait-and-switch style for handling partisan conflicts. He could put into his characters’ mouths arguments from both sides on immigration, gun control and affirmative action. But these arguments often revealed the biases of the programme-makers, and never presented a pro-life or pro-family viewpoint, except in the mouths of bigots or fools.
Josiah Bartlet is played by Martin Sheen, himself a practising Catholic and recipient of the 2008 Notre Dame Laetare award, who insisted that his character be Catholic to give him a “moral framework”. Bartlet, a Nobel Prize-winner, doting father and faithful husband, is always the smartest guy in the room; he just wants to make the world a kinder, gentler place. He erupts into the pilot episode just as his liberal staffers have locked horns with pro-life Christian lobbyists. Bartlet sonorously corrects the Protestant pastor on the first commandment, then condemns the Christian leaders for not denouncing a fringe group of pro-life campaigners. This group, we learn, threatened his 12-year-old granddaughter because she expressed pro-choice views in a teen magazine. The unspoken message is that we should approve of the granddaughter’s maturity and be appalled by those terrible pro-lifers.
Bartlet, we are told, “spent eight months travelling around the country discouraging young women from having abortions”. He is, it is implied, of the Mario Cuomo school: “personally opposed to abortion, but …” From this moment on we never hear Bartlet utter a single word in defence of the unborn.
Hollywood has, of course, long had a soft spot for the abortion industry – that is only natural, given the movies’ embrace of inconsequential sex. But advocating abortion under the approving eye of the Catholic President of the United States was a new step. Amazingly, as the show garnered awards, virtually no pro-life people complained. Only a lonely post on the Free Republic site worried about the ramifications of an ideological onslaught of clever entertainment on the soul of a populace.
The success of The West Wing was such that a New York Times poll in late 2000 indicated that Bartlet would win 75 per cent of the vote were he to run in the presidential election that year. The brilliant, articulate Bartlet became the face of intellectual Catholics, who could be accepted as peers among the smart secular kids. But Bartlet’s success comes at a price: his lassitude towards abortion and his outright embrace of same-sex marriage, both in fundamental conflict with Catholic teaching. The message, especially to left-leaning Catholic viewers, was that the best and the brightest of Catholics took the live-and-let-live position on same-sex relations and abortion, although in the latter case, never entertaining the idea that the latter really meant live and let die.
President Bartlet oscillates between authoritarianism and his desire to be liked, the latter persona dubbed “Uncle Fluffy” by his staffers. Uncle Fluffy nods at the approval of the abortion pill, and presides over a staff whose vocal advocacy for abortion brooks no debate. In a show that loves to shower the viewer with statistics and policy detail, there is never an opposing voice – scientific, religious or moral – in defence of the unborn.
Ainsley Hayes, the token Republican brought on to give some pushback in Season 2, is allowed to offer a smart defence of her position on school choice, taxation, and sexism – but she never gets to apply that incisive mind to the abortion question. One can do anything in the Bartlet administration: lie about medical conditions, sleep with prostitutes, battle addictions. Much like the Democratic party of today, only the pro-life position is off-limits.
President Bartlet is far more active in promoting gay rights, going so far as to use his bully pulpit to humiliate a radio host for her opposition to same-sex marriage, claiming that the Bible condemned many activities that we now consider normal. Never doubting his position, he plans his moves to awaken the American people to his enlightened way of thinking. It is like watching the blueprint for the future Obergefell same-sex marriage case.
The president’s faith is waved like a banner. Merchandise from the University of Notre Dame features prominently, cameras pan to his bedside rosary. He quotes Scripture, discusses homilies, and in one famous scene, even fights with God in Latin. But the only time the president feels the need for Confession is when he fails to overturn a death penalty sentence; not after his uncharitable treatment of the Evangelical radio host, not for his support of abortion, not for his efforts to undermine traditional marriage.
The West Wing was never aimed at the ignorant, pitchfork-carrying, rural religious Right that its characters love to sneer at. In fact, the show made for a whole new demographic in 1999: households making over $75,000 a year, with someone who has had at least three years of college, a subscription to The New York Times, and home internet access, a novelty at the time.
Though mostly preaching to the choir, The West Wing played a role in evangelising Catholics to the “personally opposed, but it’s a woman’s body” position. The cool, smart senior staffers who gave up lucrative jobs to feed the hungry, educate kids and welcome immigrants all believed it: why wouldn’t you?
Most irksome is the cynicism regarding abortion. Of the 155 episodes, abortion is only hashed out in three (the pilot and later in seasons 6 and 7). Yet the dialogue is permeated with the smug assumption that the abortion battle has been won with only a few prisoners left to dispose of. When feminist lobbyist Amy Gardener (lust interest of deputy chief of staff Josh Lyman) rails against “anti-choice” members of Congress who want to ban late-term abortions in “The Two Bartlets” (Season 3), Lyman beams from the back of the room, before they hook up for casual sex.
Season 3 opens with an unapologetic celebration of the approval being given to mifepristone, touted by Josh as “a pill that will abort a pregnancy up to 49 days”. Donna, his female assistant, rejoices: “Hallelujah!” Josh jokes: “You’re thinking that somehow this pill means more sex for you” – a revealing comment which Donna rejects. (“It’s a terrific medical advancement for women.”)
The importance of abortion in the pursuit of sexual happiness is evident and anti-abortion people are intermingled with opponents of homosexual marriage. When portrayed, it is as two-dimensional and inhuman, but mostly, like the unborn, they are simply discounted and passed over. Regarding mifepristone, Josh announces: “Of course, you’re for it. I’m for it. Everybody’s for it.”
Uncle Fluffy sits benevolently in the Oval Office as his senior staff strut and fret about women’s rights, while promoting a spring break hook-up culture made possible by the murder of unborn children.
Martin Sheen proved an excellent casting choice for Bartlet. Sheen is himself a more plausible version of Nancy Pelosi’s “ardent Catholic” who doesn’t want to impose his values by impeding a woman’s “right to choose”. “I don’t think abortion is a good idea,” Sheen said in an interview with The Progressive. “I personally am opposed to abortion, but I will not judge anybody else’s right in that regard because I am not a woman.”
Several of the cast reunited to endorse Hillary Clinton for president and Mary McCormack for the Supreme Court of Michigan, both vehemently pro-abortion. Now they are reassembling to back the nominally Catholic Joe Biden in 2020. Uncle Joe appears poised to be the new Uncle Fluffy – proudly “Catholic” and beholden to the abortion industry.
Twenty years later, the battle lines have grown deeper and more acrimonious. Ultrasound demonstrates fetal pain, Planned Parenthood has been rocked by scandal, and Democrats tirelessly beat back protection to abortion survivors. Now that the lockdown has glued so many people to their TVs, one hopes that a new generation of Catholics won’t be seduced by the latest incarnation of Uncle Fluffy.
Art is one of the most effective means of communication ever mastered by human beings. It delights and it teaches, for better or for worse. Brilliantly written television, complete with sympathetic characters, sense of purpose and exciting surroundings has extraordinary communicative power.
With this in mind, as we allow it in our homes and let it become part of our domestic routine and touch our hearts, it might be wise to check its temperature – as it were – to make sure it is not smuggling in any virus aimed at suffocating Catholic values and beliefs.
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