Even before The West Wing became enshrined as television's avatar for political idealism, Aaron Sorkin was writing with one eye on the state of the American soul. A Few Good Men used words like "honor," "code," and "loyalty" to illustrate the value of individuals standing up to military authority if the orders weren't moral. The American President — Sorkin's true political fairy tale — juxtaposed a White House love story with the romance of a political figure who wouldn't back down when it came to issues like gun control. By the time The West Wing premiered, it didn't take long for Sorkin to cement his reputation as America's bard of politics .
To say that Aaron Sorkin's reputation as a great liberal lion has been overblown is no slight against him. So much of what made The West Wing into the great bastion of liberal TV came about because of what sprung up around it. A little over a year after the show's debut, George W. Bush became President of the United States, and less than a year later, the Twin Towers fell. By the middle of the show's third season, America had plunged itself into two wars, and in The West Wing, a great many people saw the America they wanted: one run by principled idealists, where a good idea persuasively argued could win the day. What few people remember, though, is that The West Wing wasn't conceived as a reaction to the Bush administration; it was conceived as a reaction to the Clinton administration. The idea wasn't "what if we had a Democrat in the White House"; it was "what if we had someone in the White House who wasn't plagued by sex scandals and who was able to stand up to obstructionists in Congress and accomplish the things we want a President to accomplish."
Bush and 9/11 changed that conversation — in America and on The West Wing — and Sorkin's reaction to it wasn't quite what we remember either. You can practically pinpoint the moment in Season 3 when the episodes that were written after 9/11 begin. They reflect a creator who is clearly struggling with how to reconcile an idealist American vision with a terrorist threat in the Middle East. Previously bleeding-heart characters like Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff) began railing against madrassas; chief-of-staff Leo McGarry (John Spencer), who in Season 1 had shouted down President Bartlet (Martin Sheen) when the latter wanted to order a Middle Eastern carpet-bombing in response to an attack, became hardened and hawkish, ultimately strong-arming the President into ordering a covert assassination of an Arab leader. Neither one of these developments were met without pushback within the narrative itself, but they reflected a White House that was uncertain in its own mission. Hell, Bartlet spent multiple episodes — including "Hartsfield's Landing," the episode that is being performed in this week's West Wing reunion — unable to sleep because he was wrestling so desperately with the ghost of his father's disapproval.
The choice of "Hartsfield's Landing" as the reunion episode is interesting, and not just because the episode is maddeningly confused about how elections work. It makes sense in a lot of ways: it's about undecided voters; it's Capra-esque about voting as an American institution worth cherishing; it's about Toby convincing Bartlet to stand by the idea that the President of the United States is someone who should be an intellectual, compassionate heavyweight; it's about the now-unfamiliar feeling of trust that your President will be able to handle an international crisis in China. But it's also a reminder that Sorkin's greatest gift wasn't his politics. In fact, the actual politics of whatever story he was telling in a given episode varied between good, bad, and indifferent. Sorkin's idealism was always about leadership and forthrightness and stripping politics of phoniness and bad faith.
This is why Sorkin is wildly unsuited to comment on the Trump era, where bad faith reigns supreme and no one's found an effect way to combat it. It's why I've personally been grateful that Sorkin has spent the Trump years making (excellent) movies about Steve Jobs and high-stakes poker. And it's why I'm fascinated to see Sorkin wading back into the political discussion now, with a West Wing reunion on HBO Max and a new feature film he wrote and directed, The Trial of the Chicago 7. The latter allows Sorkin to comment on current events via a side door, wading into one of the great Boomer landmark moments: the 1968 Democratic National Convention, the riots that ensued, and in this case the trial of the seven activists who were charged with inciting that riot. Sorkin has given a window into his thoughts about the business of political protest on a couple of occasions before, and neither were all that generous toward modern-day protest movements. On The Newsroom, he dressed down the "unfocused" and "leaderless" Occupy movement, while on The West Wing, he had Toby go off on the vague demands and amateur tactics of a group of World Health Organization protesters. Unsurprisingly, Toby ultimately felt that the protesters ought to be better writers:
It's hard to imagine what Sorkin would do with something like the Black Lives Matter movement, and frankly I'd rather not find out. Instead I'm happy to see him harken back to the '60s to tell that story in a way he's good at: big ideas, big ideals, and a battle for the soul of America where he's actually familiar with the battlefield.
A few weeks ago, Sorkin caught an ocean of crap for a statement he made in response to a question about how he'd write the script for Election Night 2020:
"Trump does what we all assume he will do, which is not concede defeat, claiming the election’s rigged and the Democrats cheated. For the first time, his Republican enablers march up to the White House and say Donald it’s time to go."
Sorkin was widely roasted for the comment, which played into every negative idea anybody (particularly anybody on the progressive/online left, who can't stand him) ever had about The West Wing, namely that it was liberal wankery about an implausible world where politicians do the right thing because it's the right thing to do, and where Democrats and Republicans put their differences aside and work together if the cause is just and the argument for cooperation is made convincingly enough.
Of course, Sorkin wasn't talking about politics. He was talking about what would make the best, most satisfying, most Capra-esque story. It's the flying monkeys standing up to the Wicked Witch of the West. It's Darth Vader pitching the Emperor down the shaft in Return of the Jedi. It's the ending that offers the most optimism that this terrible moment for our country might actually be over. I may not be realistic, but I'm not sure Sorkin's under any illusions that it is.
And while all of the above would indicate that Sorkin isn't built to take on the Trump era, he might actually be exactly right to look optimistically towards a Joe Biden era. Biden as a rebuke to Trump is selling a vision of a Washington that works, a promise that brings together liberal policies with a commitment to finding a way back to a time when one could reach across the aisle for a common good. Like The West Wing, Biden is both more progressive than his lefty detractors say and more centrist than his rightwing detractors say. Like The West Wing, Biden is promising a White House that can heal, that can work, and that can promise something better. And at this particular moment in time, that may be exactly what people are looking for.
A West Wing Special to Benefit When We All Vote premieres on HBO Max Thursday October 15th. Netflix's The Trail of the Chicago 7 drops a day later, on Friday October 16th.
Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.