The West Wing Today: What would be different if the West Wing was written in 2016

For anyone with an interest in modern American politics, world governance or political or the intimate life of the world’s most powerful politician, the West Wing is a gold mine. Spanning seven series between 1999 and 2006, the series follows the Presidency of the Democrat Jed Bartlet, looking at the evolving and interlocking battles fought by his staff to ensure the fulfilment of his legislative agenda whilst fighting enemies at home and abroad.

And yet, having re-watched the series in the past few weeks, the West Wing does appear a little dated, although many of the issues still apply to the current US Presidency – healthcare, gun control, education provision etc – America has moved on since the show was first aired and these are some of the more notable alterations:

Don’t ask, don’t tell: Homosexuality and the Military

Admiral Fitzwallace: “I am asking you what you think”

Major Tate: “Sir, we’re not prejudiced towards homosexuals”

Admiral Fitzwallace: “you just don’t want to see them serving in the armed forces”

Major Tate: “no sir, I don’t”

Admiral Fitzwallace: “because they pose a threat to unit discipline and cohesion”

Major Thompson: “Yes sir”

Admiral Fitzwallace: “that’s what I think too. I also think that the military was not designed to be an instrument of social change”

Major Thompson: “yes sir”

Admiral Fitzwallace: “the problem with that is, that was what they were saying about me 50 years ago, blacks shouldn’t serve with whites, it would disrupt the unit, you know what, it did disrupt the unit, the unit got over it, the unit changed, I am an Admiral in the US Navy and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Beat that with a stick”

(from Let Bartlet be Bartlet)

In 2010, the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Repeal Act passed both the House of Representatives and the Senate and was signed by President Obama on 22nd December. DADT formally ceased to be American Government policy in September 2011. This alteration is largely down to wider changes in American society, with a younger, more liberal generation entering the armed services and expecting the country for which they fight to alter their policy in line with twenty-first century expectations. Homosexuality is still a contested issue within western cultures, many Southern conservatives remaining in opposition, but the military is no longer a catalyst in this debate.

Race Relations

Jed Bartlet: Edward, so far the churches have been empty. There have been no fatalities. But tomorrow night’s Christmas Eve. They’re going to be packed. So why shouldn’t I send troops in?

Governor of Tennessee: Because, due respect, Mr. President but you do it without my consent and it’s a clear violation of State’s rights and you would have said the same thing when you were the Governor of New Hampshire.

Jed Bartlet: This doesn’t happen in New Hampshire.

Governor of Tennessee: You got a pretty big black population in New Hampshire, do you?

Jed Bartlet: We’ll meet again this afternoon. Thank you, Governor.

Governor of Tennessee: Thank you, Mr. President.

(from Bartlet for America)

Jeff Breckenridge: We have laws in this country. You break them, you pay your fine. You break God’s laws, that’s a different story. You can’t kidnap a civilization and sell them into

slavery. No amount of money will make up for it, and all you have to do is look,

200 years later, at race relations in this country.

Josh Lyman: Yes.

Jeff Breckenridge: No amount of money will make up for it.

Josh Lyman: Yes.

(from Six Meetings Before Lunch)

An area in which American politics has become more polarised since the West Wing originally aired. During President Obama’s tenure in office, police violence as directed against minorities has taken on an increased media presence within the U.S. With the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Alton Sterling amongst others, and the formation of Black Lives Matter in July 2013, the progress that people believed was being made in bridging the racial divide in the United States has been revealed as hopelessly optimistic. If anything a regression has occurred. In the first of the two extracts, the President is criticised for viewing the issue of the firebombing of black churches in Tennessee through the lens of an elitist, white, academic. If “this doesn’t happen in New Hampshire” was the view in 2001, one can only imagine the chasm of opinion that divides the country today.

“We’re not big tobacco”

Martin Connelly: The case is running out of money.

Josh Lyman: Which case?

Martin Connelly: The US v…

Josh Lyman: You’re kidding me!

Martin Connelly: No!

Josh Lyman: Martin, we spent 13 million the first year, 23 million the second… Where’s

the money going?

Martin Connelly: Outside counsel and staff, depositions, expert witnesses, processing database, research…

Josh Lyman: Yeah.

Martin Connelly: [raising his voice] We have 31 lawyers on a case against 5 tobacco companies, just one of which has 342. We won’t count the 13 subsidiaries that have mounted their own defense. Tobacco has spent 380 million dollars to the government’s 36, so when I come here asking you for money, it’s not because the Justice Department blew its allowance on videogames!

(from The Fall’s Gonna Kill You)

 Josh Lyman: This is a phenomenally important case: it’s historic; it has to be won. And

we’re fighting with paper clips and a slingshot.

Senator Andy Ritter: We were wondering when you guys were going to notice.

(from 18th and Potomac)

Given traction as a major sub-plot towards the end of the second season into the beginning of the third, the successfully regulation of tobacco companies in the past 7 years marks an alteration in priorities for the U.S. government. On June 22 2009, the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act was signed into law by President Obama, giving the Food and Drug Administration a wider mandate with which to tackle tobacco companies. Notable among its clauses was the requirement for tobacco companies to obtain FDA approval for new tobacco products, the imposition of new warnings on cigarette packaging and advertising and the banning of certain flavoured cigarettes. The 111th United States Congress (Jan 09 – Jan 11) obviously placed a higher importance of the issues of smoking and public health than did the respect branch of government during Bartlet’s presidency, although opposition still existed in the Senate from those representing tobacco farming states, such as Georgia and Kentucky.

And Finally

C.J. Cregg: The Federal Page of the Washington Post just called Carol to confirm that

you’re the Josh Lyman who stated on an Internet website that the White House could

order a GAO review on anything it wants.

(From The U.S. Poet Laureate)

It seems unlikely that any screenwriter in 2016 would refer to a “website” as anything other than a “website”. Back in 2002 though, Twitter and Facebook didn’t exist and the web was not as understood, as easy to access, or as quick.


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