Watching The West Wing: Teachers and Courts

I am midway through a weeks-long marathon of watching The West Wing. When I was young, my parents watched the show, and I often watched it with them. Most evenings I watched whatever prime time drama my parents were into, and my wife and I recently began to run through the whole show on Netflix. Aaron Sorkin’s tendency to plant teachable moments throughout what is a fairly fast-paced and often context-riddled dialogue – notorious both in The West Wing and The Newsroom – does two things: teach the intricacies of American politics, both complex and simple, to an audience that may not yet know the details of a filibuster or censure or pardon, and allows those who do know feel a sense of being an “insider” as they follow the main characters down familiar hallways.

Coincidentally, Alyssa Rosenberg at The Washington Post is also watching the show this summer, and wrote a smart piece on the personal politics of the show, focusing on the fact that the main characters’ “positions on policy are — at least initially — determined by their personal attachments.” She argues that “it’s an ingenious way to make viewers feel attached to policy debates. But it also lets the Bartlet administration, which was never terribly liberal in the first place, be guided much more by emotion than any particular partisan theory of government.” I suggest reading her article, as it looks at the show’s focus on personal relationships and on its discussion of media and personal lives.


But I have something else I’d like to focus on. In watching the senior staff of the Bartlet administration debate education, drug policy, war, and terrorism, I’m becoming more and more convinced that The West Wing obscures more than it reveals. While the script frequently teaches its audience about the inner workings of the White House and American politics in general, the descriptions and definitions it provides often preclude the viewer from making up her own mind about those very issues. The ideas proposed – recruiting more teachers, supporting international justice, decriminalizing marijuana, selling weapons to repressive regimes, etc. – are introduced not to educate but to show the viewer which one is right (or at least practical, for the latter two realpolitik situations).

The West Wing‘s take on the post-9/11 world is something I’ll have to set aside for another day (that subject will take much, much more time), but here I’m going to outline two specific scenes in seasons 2 and 3. I’m halfway through the show, so it’s very likely that more of these posts are coming. Without further ado, The West Wing, Teach for America, and the International Criminal Court.


Aboard Air Force One in “The Portland Trip” when a Teach For America-esque program is floated as a possible plank in the education platform, it comes from an extremely bright inner-city black young man who has not yet gone to college. Charlie, the personal aid to the President, proposes that the government pay for college for those who agree to teach for a few years in schools where its needed. It is Toby, White House Communications Director, who is wary of the program, stating that it is “patronizing to have privileged Ivy Leaguers play teacher to America’s most vulnerable children.” When Sam suggests that Teacher’s Unions will welcome new members, Toby rebukes the idea by stating that most will leave after three years, abandoning the youth in underprivileged schools.

Teach For America, which was founded by Wendy Kopp after she conceived of the idea in her undergraduate thesis at Princeton, sends college graduates into schools with the promise of paying for graduate school later. TFA is notorious for recruiting from prestigious schools, and a large number of recruits go on to work pretty much anywhere but in public schools. Disadvantaged children often become stepping stones towards graduate school, as I’ve outlined before. (It is worth mentioning here that TFA has undergone some changes in the last two years or so, which many have argued is a shift in the right direction).

Nonetheless, in the episode’s closing, Toby decides it is a good idea to fund college for would-be teachers, despite his (rather prescient, especially for the early 2000s) reservations about inequality and lack of teacher preparation, and tells the President he should form a committee to look into its feasibility. The objections were aired and then dismissed in short order.


In “War Crimes,” Leo sits down with an Air Force general to discuss the Rome Statue, which was drafted in 1998 and created the International Criminal Court in 2002. President Bill Clinton signed the treaty at the very, very end of his term, because he had been unable to rally enough votes to actually get it ratified. Rather than take the torch from his predecessor, President Bush effectively threw the treaty in the garbage, declaring it “un-signed” and appointing John Bolton to lead the charge against the ICC (Bolton said the historic un-signing was the “happiest moment” of his career).

In the story line, Leo argues the moral side (genocide is bad!) against the Air Force general’s argument for sovereignty. The general also points to Republican efforts to force U.S. allies to agree that American citizens are immune to the Court and mentions legislation requiring that the U.S. forcibly liberate any Americans apprehended by the Court as well (Bolton was the author of the American Service-Members’ Protection Act, which does all of these and more, which was signed into law by Bush about a year after this episode aired). All real scenarios and arguments that occurred in the early 2000s. Leo’s response is, again, moralistic – arguing on behalf of the lineage of Nuremberg.

Early on in the conversation, Leo says that “the Court is designed with plenty of safeguards,” but doesn’t put up much more of a fight. The heart of the ICC’s incredible weakness, however, is that the U.S. and other powerful nations gutted attempts at universal jurisdiction in Rome in 1998, so the crippled court that went into existence can pretty much never try an American. Leo doesn’t go on a West Wing Rant™ about complementarity, the fact that the Court only steps in if the member states do not, or about the multiple obstacles that restrain any rogue prosecutor from going after American nationals. Leo leaves all of this out, so when the Air Force general makes the dick move of calling Leo a war criminal, the audience is left without a strong, fact-based argument in favor of the Court.

In both education and international law, Sorkin’s decision to explain ideas and topics through dialogue only serves to support a single view of that topic. Though Toby mounts a cogent defense against the education program, he suddenly agrees with it but for unknown reasons. Though Leo feigns moral and historical reasons for supporting the ICC, he doesn’t elaborate on why the military’s baseless worries about the Court are exactly that.


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