President Bartlet's Bully Pulpit

Curator's Note

In Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing, Josiah Bartlet holds the office of President of the United States. But in a show that portrays the drama of partisan gridlock, Bartlet also resides as leader of the Democratic Party.

The following two clips show Martin Sheen paying homage to noteworthy liberals. The soft Kennedy “R,” the piety of Jimmy Carter, the folksy wit of Bill Clinton—Sorkin imbues the fictional president with the traits of the 20th century’s great leftists. Avid followers of the show know that Bartlet suffers from Multiple Sclerosis and adopts the cane and wheelchair present in some of FDR’s iconic poses (1:15). What does Sorkin intend to convey by this? The fictional president’s name suggests the writer’s intent.

Josiah was the name of one of Israel’s kings in the Old Testament.  The kingdom of Judah had fallen into chaos because its rulers had done evil in the sight of the Lord, But Josiah restored the kingdom’s famed glory by finding the Temple Scroll and following it faithfully. Like the kingly prophets of old, Sorkin’s president wields scroll (1:30) and scripture to rebuke those who have lost sight of righteousness.

Josiah Barlet’s more direct namesake is Josiah Bartlett, a delegate to the Continental Congress and signer of the Declaration of Independence. Bartlet and Bartlett both served the New Hampshire governorship. Viewers are reminded throughout the show’s seven seasons that Bartlet’s patriotism is a family affair.

Thus, Barlet stands as an ideal liberal interlocutor, charged with the role of countering the Christian Right’s monopoly on God and country. The 1998 impeachment of Bill Clinton spurred Republican moralism. And to quote a contemporaneous episode of Sorkin's Sports Night, "A lot of folks [were] running in that direction." But the Commander in Chief called the Left to arms; Sorkin presented a Democrat who was more Christian and more American than the GOP could ever imagine.

In the last few years the Bartlet Legacy has experienced a resurgence. Maureen Dowd invited Sorkin to “conjure a meeting” between Senator Obama and Bartlet. It was September 2008 and down in the polls, the candidate visits Sorkin’s Deus ex Machina for counsel. And today, 15,000 enjoy similar exchanges with @pres_bartlet. Sermons from Bartlet’s bully pulpit resound, and fans are still listening.


Interesting piece, Richard, and I like how you've contextualized Josiah Bartlet alongside the "20th century's great leftists" as well as mentioned his legacy in the 21st century. It has me wondering what the reactions would have been to The West Wing and the Bartlet administration had they been introduced today. They appeared just as Clinton was leaving office. Considering how much more divided this country has grown over the last decade, how would Bartlet have been sculpted differently? Would Obama's politics be influential to Bartlet and his administration?

I have a particularly difficult time imagining TWW in this era. In some ways, life has imitated art too much for the art to speak,at least in the same tongue. President Obama is the academic, the orator, and a symbol of the American dream. But in this gridlocked provenance, none of that seems enough. I think today's TWW would be less clean, more gritty-- perhaps with a tone akin to Nolan's Batman. Bartlet would be the strategist that got the job done by throwing caution to the wind, playing the political game we hate to see but love to watch.

Aaron Sorkin did such an amazing job with this series, and this is debatably one of the best written shows ever.  Sorkin somehow finds an agent, in the form of Josiah Bartlet, to appeal to the masses.  Although President Bartlet champions quite liberal legislation, he appeals to the conservatives through these pious and homily-esque orations, as seen in these two clips.  Even the mere fact that Bartlet went to the University of Notre Dame demonstrates how Sorkin is taking a religious stand, for that very institution requires every student to take at least two religion courses.  It is a nice amalgamation of religion and democracy, for this show explicitly emphasizes how the two do not have to be the antithesis of one another, but can somehow coexist.

Indeed, Bartlet's study at the University of Notre Dame is quite the statement. Thank you for your comment.

In the episode "The Portland Trip," Bartlet tells CJ that he chose the school over the Ivy League because he intended to become a priest. He did not move forward toward the cloth because he met his future wife, Abbey. The scene is a brilliant way to showcase Bartlet's elite academic credentials (read: liberal signifier) and his family values (read: conservative signifier). Sorkin really does a great job of appealing to both sides of the aisle.

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