Sorkin Lives: Mediating the post-9-11 US political mind in The West Wing

Curator's Note

It was an entire season before The West Wing offered its most powerful and eloquent response to the lingering trauma of 9/11, following its initial 'storytelling aberration' less than a month after the terrorist attacks. Aaron Sorkin may have ushered in a rhetorical style rarely before heard on network TV, but he did so using language and dramaturgy deeply entangled in concerns of US politics and cultural identity.

The season four opener ("20 Hours in America") finds President 'Jed' Bartlet returning from the campaign trail (leaving three other colleagues stranded in the American mid-West) to news that pipe bombs were detonated during a 'swim meet' at the fictional Kennison State University, killing 44 people and wounding over a hundred. Paralleling the 1999 Columbine High School massacre, this act of domestic terrorism involving troubled teens moves deputy communications director, Sam Seborn to write an electrifying sermon of national unity.

Building toward narrative catharsis illustrated in the clip is common to The West Wing. The use of the sound bridge — the rumbling, mournful, tones of Tori Amos' singing "I Don’t Like Mondays" — ties together different spaces, locations and time zones. Escalating toward Bartlet delivering his speech with dialogue crafted for effect, language used like musical notation, with a rhythm, clarity and image of its own.

Adroit wordplay with a precise staccato rhythm defined how politics was communicated in The West Wing (especially in the first 4 seasons). President Bartlet led by the power of words. His oratory had a symphony-like structure to it, functioning, as Sorkin describes, like ‘solos’; and, as this sequence illustrates, the scene moves from the ensemble (assembled around different television screens, echoing how 9/11 played out); and advances toward the solo, in which the President through soaring eloquence offers patriarchal benediction.

Patriotism and promise—woven into the fabric of this speech are threads of the American rhetorical tradition. Redemption is preached with scriptural passion. This is the old-fashioned art of US political oratory stretching from John F. Kennedy to Abraham Lincoln and as far back as the farmers who made revolution. Within the DNA of this speech are traces of how language is used to talk about what it fundamentally means to be American. Sorkin understood only too well how words and texts have the force to reform politics, even change government—something indeed a little known Senator from Illinois also appreciated.


What a nice analysis, Janet. Thanks for sharing!

That sequence makes me think of Boston Legal (2004-2008), another primetime show whose speeches are "used to talk about what it fundamentally means to be American" (albeit, a rather liberal-minded one). Indeed, as President Bartlet passionately and vigorously delivers Sorkin's words, Alan Shore (James Spader) oft does the same with David E. Kelley's. Granted, the styles of Sorkin and Kelley differ, but both men, it seems, clearly "understand how words and texts have the force to reform politics, even change government."

Great post, Janet.

Your mention of the "Isaac and Ishmael" 'storytelling aberration' is important, especially since over time, that episode seems to have been unilaterally panned (perhaps unfairly) as much as the Seinfeld finale has been.

There's an irony embedded in the clip you've included: Sam Seaborn's moving speech (of course, fictional) was written in the car ride over to the event at which the president spoke, but the meticulously produced episode appeared a full year after 9/11. And Sorkin's initial response (the "Isaac and Ishmael" episode) to that tragic day was produced merely a few weeks later ... and thus maybe could not have achieved the impressive style that you describe in your post about "20 Hours in America"?

This speech,like no other in TWW, shows how Bartlet has access to the American dreamscape like no one else on the show. And while Santos (Bartlet's successor) is supposed to embody the dream, he lacks the presidential voice that enables Bartlet to display the dream before us, Aaron Sorkin's signature writing.

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