The Political Machine and the Making of an Author-Sovereign

by Katrin Trüstedt

West Wing_1A dominating figure in the contemporary imagination is the strong, authentic man breaking the rules of some institution in which he is playing a key role. Many acclaimed TV series of the last decade feature not only “difficult men,” but also those men – such as Jack Bauer, Don Draper, or Dr. House – who are pitted against an institution that they are leading in some way. Despite their differences, these shows exhibit a certain nostalgia for an original mind behind the institutional procedures. This nostalgia is itself not such a new sentiment. Older forms and narratives have influenced the current perceived opposition between system, administration, and procedure on the one hand, and a free (if difficult) spirit outside of it on the other. (In The Kindgom and the Glory Giorgio Agamben has traced the model back to the first centuries of Christian theology). There is much actual need for change in political institutions, as well as for real political discourse despite and beyond them. But in today's political imagination, those needs seem to manifest themselves mainly in terms of an opposition between an inscrutable institution (like the bureaucratic apparatus of the European Union) and some ‘real character' as its alternative and as its potential future source. The need for such a character, however, is created by the institution itself.

No other show seems to capture the schizophrenic dynamic between an apparatus and its leader quite as well as The West Wing. The show mainly features the behind-the-scenes life of politics and reflects its apparatus and machinery, its procedures and mechanisms, not only on the level of ‘content,' but also in the makeup of the show itself: the famous walk and talk in the literalized corridors of power, the dialogues switching between different topics (as befits the specific medium of television with its program switching possibilities). Everything is procedure in action, and every piece and every person is part of the procedure and influenced by it – be it regarding the internal political negotiations of the government itself or the exchange with the ‘outside world.'

Concerning the ‘incoming flow,' this goes for all the information and data, all the papers and ideas that are selected, handed around, and ‘spun' a certain way. It also goes for the will of ‘the people' who are present in the governmental process mainly in the form of complex polling procedures. Regarding the ‘outgoing flow,' the show focuses on the making of the president and the fabrication of his ‘message' by his speech writers; their rhetorical and technical elaborations feature prominently throughout The West Wing. All the characters are simply part of the process that they alternately join and leave. No one's bigger than the game, says Josh in episode 4.07.

And yet, this whole complex machinery somehow also creates the need for and the illusion of someone much bigger than the game. This is the other side of the series, featuring the great man behind the apparatus, often accompanied by unbearable dramatic music and close-ups of president Bartlet. In this way, The West Wing is always potentially self-referential, hinting at the complexity of the collaborative making and writing of a TV series, while at the same time evoking the “author” behind it (Aaron Sorkin).

Episode 1.19, “Let Bartlet Be Bartlet,” starts out with the complex apparatus in the foreground featuring Toby, Sam, C.J., Josh, and Leo in typical walk and talk scenes, involved with several topics that get intertwined without necessarily resonating with each other. President Bartlet is absent for most of the episode. When he enters the walk and talk at some point, he does so as the figure who only mindlessly reads out what his writers hand him.

SAM: Here are your remarks, Sir.

BARTLET: Couple of things. – Uh, who am I gonna be talking to now?

SAM: The United Organization of Trout Fishermen.

BARTLET: No, seriously now.

SAM: Sir?

BARTLET: Give me the damn speech.

SAM: There are some very nice anecdotes there about trout fishing.

BARTLET: Have I ever been trout fishing?

SAM: Probably not.

“Couldn't pick a trout out of a police lineup,” Bartlet says, while entering the auditorium. There are bigger fish to fry. A bigger fish is introduced during the walk and talk of the staff: amidst other topics, including a mysterious piece of paper that's being passed around and revised C.V.O. projections, Josh mentions that two seats opened up in the Federal Election Commission. Besides “Don't Ask Don't Tell,” the election process is the major topic of this episode, a topic that is itself about procedure: the very procedure of electing officials to govern. Changing the election process by appointing reform candidates would make a huge difference to the highly problematic way that elections are financed. “We are, by definition, corrupt,” says Josh. Bringing about such a change, however, runs up against its own procedural “roadblocks,” as Josh calls them:

JOSH: When a vacancy comes up, it's up to the President to fill it, but the party leadership on both sides always, always, always dictates to the President who he's gonna appoint. One Republican. One Democrat. Whoever the leadership says. That's how you keep the peace.

DONNA: But you're gonna change all that, right?

JOSH: No, but I'm gonna spend most of the week trying.

The attempts at reform get stuck in the political machinery gone bad: the “roadblocks” are both the concrete political mechanisms of this episode and also the political dynamics that enabled them, the outcomes of the corrupt election process being one of them. As a solution to those “roadblocks,” what The West Wing offers is not structural change of procedure, but precisely the (re-)creation of the president as the other of the procedure.

In stark contrast to the dynamic, fast, and funny beginning featuring the staff, the episode switches its mode and ends by calling on the great man to rise up and speak out. What is needed, the show claims, is the real authentic voice of the man beyond the apparatus. But this voice does not just resound out of the clear blue sky. It is being produced by the machine itself, and more precisely by Leo, president Bartlet's chief of staff. While Leo “serves at the pleasure of the President,” as he solemnly declares, he is the one who made him run for president in the first place and has ever since been directing him. “Leo runs the show,” as Bartlet himself says in Episode 3.2. When Leo confronts the president in the Oval Office, separate from the rest of the crew that keeps waiting in Leo's office, it is about who is to blame for the situation, for what is or rather is not happening. They each blame the other for being the ultimate (driving or blocking) force. The president lets Leo persuade him that he was the one holding back – he is to blame for not being able to be blamed. So it is Leo – not as the face of a man behind the apparatus, but of the apparatus itself – who manages to ‘create' the man and the voice outside and beyond the machine that can serve as its ultimate source.

LEO: Say it out loud. Say it to me.

BARTLET: This is more important than reelection. I want to speak now.

LEO: Say it again.

BARTLET: This is more important than reelection. I want to speak now.

LEO: Now we're in business! … Say it.

BARTLET: This is more important than reelection. I want to speak now.

Leo actually makes the President “speak,” as the author. The speech act is empty, the pure sound of proclamation that declares itself, as its own message (“I want to speak now”). ‘Speaking his mind' is pitted against political strategic moves inside an apparatus (“reelection”) that includes polling numbers (the opinions of ‘the people') as well as the antagonists. Leo writes down the strategy that gives this episode its title: “LET BARTLET BE BARTLET.” The strategy shows that Bartlet cannot simply be Bartlet. Rather, Leo needs to put him into a position to actually “be” Bartlet – the “Bartlet” that is the whole strategy, whose author is not Bartlet, but Leo.

Back in Leo's office, the announcement (or, rather, the annunciation) is made to the staff, and they react with reaffirmation, one by one, of the logic and hierarchical order that has just been claimed. By acclamation, they pledge allegiance to the voice and the message of the president they spend all their time on creating.

JOSH: I serve at the pleasure of the President of the United States.

LEO: [to C.J.] Yeah?

C.J.: I serve at the pleasure of the President.

SAM: I serve at the pleasure of President Bartlet.

LEO: Toby?

TOBY: I serve at the pleasure of the President.

LEO: Good. Then let's get in the game!

The stupefied glances, blinded by the aura of the president they serve, and the dramatic music accompanying it don't match the actual ‘game' they supposedly interrupted to call for a voice from the outside that might be able to animate it. Bartlet is separate from his staff, in the Oval Office, outside, beyond, and behind the machinery that he supposedly establishes. He appears, framed by the doors of the Oval Office, with one nod, as the answer to and the last image of this episode. As the last image, the president appears not as its source, but as the result – the product of the game and the machinery that we have seen working for the better part of this episode and this show.

This ambivalent circle, “in which power in its 'glorious' aspect becomes indiscernible from oikonomia and government” (Agamben) seems to return us to an early modern conception of authorship, indebted to a political theology in which the sovereign acts as the (typically male) creator and author who speaks – the author, ultimately, of the speeches his writers are here shown writing and handing to him. By acclamation, the writers claim to be only the medium of the words really owned by the genius-author, represented by them, the actors. And yet, the need for such a genius behind the machine is evoked by the machinery itself that is “stuck in the mud,” as the reporter Danny has it, and that needs to make up its own author as a source and form of legitimation to move forward. The West Wing plays out the dynamic between these two sides of the political coin. It shows the sovereign not as the other of the institutional procedure that resides beyond and independent of it, but rather as entangled in the procedures that create the longing for something pure and untouched by them in the first place. The author-creator ultimately appears as the product of the machinery he is supposed to constantly re-create.