To what extent are the works of Aaron Sorkin a response to the presidency of George W. Bush?

Revered and critically acclaimed screenwriter and executive producer Aaron Sorkin has ascended to the summit of television and film through his short, but impressive catalogue of work. Considered a left-wing and liberal writer, in a career spanning back to 1992, Sorkin’s writing (and liberal) credentials speak for themselves. In recent years, Sorkin as worked on dramatised biopics, such as Charlie Wilson’s War (2007), which depicted the congressional career of Texan Charlie Wilson and his aiding of the Mujahedeen in the conflict against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980’s; The Social Network (2010); Moneyball (2011) and Steve Jobs (2015) (, 2015). It is important to recognise the influence Sorkin holds in television and film, because without that reputation, the salience of his work and his political opinion are muted somewhat. Despite much of his recent work deviating away from politics, Sorkin is however, perhaps best known as the creator of the political television shows The West Wing (1999-2006) and The Newsroom (2012-2014), as well as the film The American President (1995) (, 2015). Sorkin left The West Wing after season four in 2003, but as the creator of the series, and for the purpose of this paper, seasons five through seven will also be considered elements of his work.

After a comprehensive study of Sorkin’s filmography, in this essay I explore the idea that his political works are a response to the Presidency of Republican George W. Bush. I will lean on both The West Wing and The Newsroom to form my central and peripheral claims, with reference to his other work. This paper presents a multifaceted proposal that is more complex than the original question might suggest. My central argument is that Sorkin’s work is more a response to the Republican Party and social conservatism than at directly addressing the Bush Administration, as the title might suggest. This is particularly applicable in regards to The Newsroom, which attacks real-life Republican politicians and the Tea Party movement, as opposed to the fictional characters (some of whom are based on real-life politicians) found in The West Wing. Other subsequent claims include the argument that whilst areas of The West Wing attack President Bush, other elements of the show fall in line behind his administration, on topics such as foreign policy and the issue of terrorism. Lastly, in many ways The Newsroom is more political than The West Wing and can hold within harsher ramifications to the Republican Party at the hands of an impressionable audience than The West Wing could.

In a field of auxiliary claims, two lesser points, but valid arguments nonetheless, are that The American President (1995) is a retaliation to the strength of Congressional Republicans at the time and their environmental record, and that President Bartlet is the Commander-in-Chief the electorate wanted President Clinton to be; a mark he fell short of, especially in his second term. The sum of all these conjunctive claims leads me to the conclusion that the political work of Sorkin is without a doubt, to some extent a response to the Presidency of George W. Bush, but on the whole, His work is aimed at the Republican Party and social conservatism.

In regards to both The West Wing and The Newsroom, although received by audiences and critics very differently, they are both served by the same principle truth; that “nothing is more important to democracy than a well-informed electorate” (The Newsroom, 2012, The 112th Congress), which is based on a similar quote from President Thomas Jefferson and pays homage to the value Sorkin places on effective speech and rhetoric (Quiring in Rollins and O’Conner, 2003). In these works, Sorkin has combined artist license and political commentary to inform and inspire millions of people (Journell and Buchanan, 2012) around the world, whilst at times, advancing his own political opinion. This point is supported by Peggy Noonan who served as an advisor to Sorkin on The West Wing. “He (Sorkin) is, in my view, an incipient artist who has not fully decided whether he is a political operative who does art or an artist who does politics” (Noonan, 2002). Within the discourse, it is argued that “compelling narratives can carry remarkable social and political force” (Gans-Boriskin and Tisinger, 2005, p.100) and that “individuals sometimes draw upon entertainment programs and fictional narratives in forming political beliefs” (Delli Carpini and Williams in Gans-Boriskin and Tisinger, 2005, p.101). Therefore the political leanings and content of political television can potentially have a significant impact on the audience and their views, which is why the extent to which the works of Aaron Sorkin are a response (or not) to the presidency of George W. Bush is an important area of scholarly investigation. On a less partisan footnote to this point, the value of Sorkin’s work as political commentary is clear to see, which is to advance the level of debate and increase the engagement with politics within society, regardless of any purported biases in either television show. As the Chief of Staff to President Bartlet in The West Wing, Leo McGarry said, “We’re going to raise the level of debate in this country, and let that be our legacy” (The West Wing, 2000, Let Bartlet Be Bartlet).

I will start with two of my supplementary claims that enforce the idea that much of Sorkin’s writing is reactionary. Republican President George W. Bush was inaugurated half-way through the second season of The West Wing, in January 2001. Prior to this, President Josiah Bartlet had played the role of fictional counterpart to Democratic President Bill Clinton. Bartlet was created at a time when President Clinton was being impeached for lying about his affair with Monica Lewinsky. Bartlet became the idealised version of Clinton in seasons one and two (Lewis, 2001). Through the admission that Bartlet had covered up his Multiple Sclerosis in his presidential campaign, Bartlet became both justification and a response to the controversies of Clinton’s second term. Furthermore, President Shepherd in The American President advances an optimistic environmental policy. This was during a time in which real-life House Republicans, led by Newt Gingrich, were trying to repeal and quash much of Clinton’s environmental agenda (Adler, 2013, p.137).

The most pertinent argument in support of the notion that Sorkin’s work is a response to the presidency of George W. Bush is the character of Governor Robert Ritchie in The West Wing. Governor Ritchie is, in no uncertain terms, a fictional representation of George W. Bush. Ritchie is played by James Brolin and bares a remarkable resemblance to President Bush. Brolin’s son, Josh also plays President Bush in the biopic W. (2008) which further reinforces the perceived likeness. Ritchie is the Republican Governor of Florida in the show, as was George W. Bush’s brother, Jeb, in real life from 1999-2007 (, 2015). Governor Ritchie runs for President in Season three and four of The West Wing, against incumbent Josiah Bartlet, portrayed by Martin Sheen. The Ritchie character was born out of Sorkin’s dissatisfaction with the results of the 2000 Presidential Election between George W. Bush and Al Gore. The result of the election was contingent upon the outcome of the state of Florida and the contentious result swung the race in the favour of Bush and the Republicans, even though he received a smaller percentage of the national popular vote (, 2001). The character and the storyline play into the popular narrative that George W. Bush was lacking the intellectual capacity that holding the office of The President requires. “Bartlet is going to be running against Governor Robert Ritchie, of Florida, who’s not the sharpest tool in the box but who’s raised a lot of money and is very popular with the Republican Party,” (Sorkin in Friend, 2002). Prior to the general election, President Bartlet refers to the presumptive Republican nominee, Governor Ritchie, as a “.22 calibre mind in a .357 magnum world” (The West Wing, 2002, The U.S. Poet Laureate). In other words, Bartlet is calling Ritchie stupid. This view is supported by political science professor Amy E. Black:

“To me it seems obvious that it’s a caricature of President Bush — a southern governor, Republican, who doesn’t seem to know what he’s talking about. All of the negative stereotypes that came out in 2000 are overplayed in the character of Ritchie.” (Black in Bluey, 2008)

Much of the storyline is about righting the perceived wrong of the electing of George W. Bush to the presidency. Bartlet runs the campaign that Sorkin wished Gore had ran. “It was frustrating watching Gore try so hard not to appear smart in the debates—why not just say ‘Here’s my fucking résumé, what do you got?’” (Sorkin in Friend, 2002). This point is evidenced by Bartlet’s communications director, Toby Ziegler, urging the President to run his re-election campaign on his intellectual ability against the dim Governor Ritchie. “You don’t want to lose as the smartest kid in class who’s running against an everyman. But I’m telling you, be the smartest kid in your class. Be the reason why your father hated you. Make this an election about smart and stupid, about engaged and not, qualified and not” (The West Wing, 2002, Hartsfield’s Landing).

In the concluding episode of season three, titled Posse Comitatus (2002), President Bartlet and Governor Ritchie exchange words at a fundraiser in New York. Bartlet tells Ritchie of the murder of a secret service agent, to which Ritchie replies “Crime. Boy, I don’t know” (The West Wing, 2002, Posse Comitatus). Bartlet claims that Ritchie has turned disengagement into “a zen-like thing” (The West Wing, 2002, Posse Comitatus), to which Ritchie responds by calling him a “superior sumbitch” (The West Wing, 2002, Posse Comitatus). The exchange ends with Bartlet telling Ritchie that “in the future, if you’re wondering, ‘Crime. Boy, I don’t know’ is when I decided to kick your ass” (The West Wing, 2002, Posse Comitatus). In the single debate between the two, Bartlet scores an overwhelming victory and this is the point at which the election is considered to be over (The West Wing, 2002, Game On). Not only does Ritchie embody George W. Bush, Bartlet is seen as the candidate that Al Gore should have been. The inclusion of the Governor Ritchie character in The West Wing and his electoral defeat are part of the alternate history Sorkin wrote in response to the perceived illegitimacy of the Bush presidency and the way Sorkin had wanted the 2000 presidential election to unfold.

The West Wing is not the only show of Sorkin’s that undermines the intelligence of President Bush. In the Pilot episode of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip (2006-2007) the opening scene is a satirical sketch aimed at George W. Bush (Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, 2006, Pilot). In The Newsroom episode The 112th Congress, News Night anchor Will McAvoy talks of accountability and uses a clip of former counter-terrorism chief, Richard Clark, speaking from the 2004 9/11 commission in which he says “Your Government failed you, those entrusted with protecting you, failed you and I failed you” (Richard Clark in The Newsroom, 2012, The 112th Congress). By extension, Sorkin appears to be placing a portion of the blame to George W. Bush for the events that followed the September 11th attacks and the subsequent and ill-fated ‘War on Terror’. This is the only mention of George W. Bush in The Newsroom, which plays directly into the central claim that much of Sorkin’s work is aimed at The Republican Party, not solely Bush’s administration. Secondly, apportioning blame on Bush for his War on Terror is a departure from the stance the West Wing took to foreign policy and terrorism. This point will be discussed further.

The most telling evidence that The West Wing did not develop into a solely anti-Bush programme lies with the way in which Sorkin and the rest of the production team tackled the issue of terrorism and foreign policy in a post-9/11 world (Holbert et al, 2003). Sorkin is a liberal. His foreign policy decisions, through the arm of Josiah Bartlet in the Situation Room, are not. “Sorkin’s President Bartlet, in the months after the terrorist attacks, pursued a foreign policy more hawkish than even that of the Bush administration” (Gans-Boriskin and Tisinger, 2005, p.100). Gans-Boriskin and Tisinger (2005) argue that The West Wing tackles terrorism on three fronts; Islamic fundamentalism as the cause of modern-day terrorism; that it cannot be tackled through international law and diplomacy and a support for Israel. This is not dissimilar to relationship the United States and Israel shared during Bush’s presidency. In concurrence with the last point, at the end of season five and into season six, President Bartlet attempts to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with diplomacy by promoting peaceful coexistence (Cass, 2007).

In order to mute controversy, Sorkin created the fictional country of Qumar to revolve topics of foreign policy in the show around.

“In the world of The West Wing, Qumar is an Arab ally in the Middle East with suspected ties to terrorism. Viewers learn that Qumar has a terrible record on human rights abuses, particularly in terms of women […] which seems to be an amalgamation of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Saudi Arabia” (Gans-Boriskin and Tisinger, 2005, p.104).

In the episode Night Five (2002), Toby Zeigler endures a heated exchange with Congresswoman Wyatt (Also his ex-wife) on the subject of fundamentalism in Arab states. The argument is punctuated by Toby shouting “Why does the US have to take every Arab country out for an ice cream cone? They’ll like us when we win!” (The West Wing, 2002, Night Five). Toby’s speech is deemed by Gans-Boriskin and Tisinger as overly simplistic and jingoistic (Gans-Boriskin and Tisinger, 2005, p.106). Through the example of Toby’s speech, they advocate my claim that The West Wing falls in line behind the foreign policy of the Bush Administration.

The last point of emphasis that is supported by the Gans-Boriskin and Tisinger paper is the way in which Sorkin and his Bartlet Administration dealt with the threat of Qumari Defence Minister, Abdul Sharif, who was a known terrorist. A chain of events lead to the assassination of Sharif and the order to “take him” (The West Wing, 2002, Posse Comitatus) comes from President Bartlet himself. This shady approach to foreign policy is a result of the assumption made by The West Wing “that international law is ill-equipped to handle the problem of terrorism” (Gans-Boriskin and Tisinger, 2005, p.107).

“The decision by a president ‘‘to end’’ an official of a foreign government cannot be discussed without raising the specter of Iraq and Saddam Hussein. The Bush administration’s constant discussion of ‘‘regime change’’ is the real-world example of flouting international law against assassination to achieve a ‘‘greater good”” (Gans-Boriskin and Tisinger, 2005, p.109).

Although Sorkin only addresses real-life terrorism in one episode, Isaac and Ishmael (2001) which aired as a stand-alone episode in the wake of 9/11 to promote religious tolerance to a nation in mourning, The West Wing’s development was heavily influenced by the events of 9/11. This allowed for Sorkin to endorse the foreign policy of President Bush and attack him simultaneously to acquiesce the result of the 2000 presidential elections by displaying his personal views towards George W. Bush through the character of Governor Ritchie. To this end, The West Wing in part developed into a response to the presidency of George W. Bush, but not totally and completely.

There is a wealth of evidence that supports my central claim that much of the works of Sorkin are aimed at the Republican Party in general. Aside from the fact that George W. Bush is mentioned once in the series, the first two seasons of The Newsroom routinely involve Republican and Tea Party movement bashing, based on actual events and soundbites that occurred. It is in fact, on a weekly basis at the hands of a socially liberal Republican news anchor, Will McAvoy. Two of the multitude of examples to choose from are when he refers to the Tea Party as “The American Taliban” (The Newsroom, 2012, The Greater Fool) and when asked about why he is a Republican, McAvoy responds in part, by saying:

“The problem is now I have to be homophobic, I have to count how many times people go to church, I have to deny facts […], I have to think poor people are getting a sweet ride and I have to have such a stunning inferiority complex that I fear education and intellect” (The Newsroom, 2013, Election Night: Part II).

McAvoy aggressively goes after Republican and conservative staples such as gun rights, voter identification, climate change scepticism and the issue of homosexuality. The latter I will use as a case study, partly because George W. Bush opposed same-sex marriage (, 2004). This argument incorporates both The Newsroom and The West Wing to support the central claim that Sorkin’s work attacks The Republican Party and its socially conservative platform. As Will McAvoy puts it “I only seem liberal because I believe hurricanes are caused by high barometric pressure and not gay marriage” (The Newsroom, 2012, I’ll Try to Fix You). In addition to this, the episode Willie Pete (2013) directly addresses a Republican primary debate from 2011 in which the audience booed a gay soldier who addressed a question to the candidates whilst on tour in the Middle East. McAvoy picks up on the fact that not one of the candidates defended the soldier and in turn denounces their ability to lead the nation.

The most famous example of Sorkin advocating socially liberal views at the expense of conservatives and the Republican Party is from The West Wing. In the episode The Midterms (2000), Bartlet addresses a right-wing Christian and homophobic White House guest based on Dr Laura Schlessinger (Lewis, 2011, p.37). He uses multiple Bible verses in a tirade aimed at belittling the guest and her archaic views.

In addition to Sorkin’s carefully orchestrated attacks at conservatives, his use of idealistic and left-wing-friendly Republicans further intensifies his denouncement of the GOP. Will McAvoy is the kind of Republican that Sorkin wants to see and wants his Republican audience to be. This can also be seen in seasons six and seven of The West Wing with presidential candidate, the “socially moderate, fiscally conservative, pro-choice Republican Arnold Vinick” (Paskin, 2012). The use of McAvoy and Vinick (although technically not Sorkin’s character) exemplifies how Sorkin believes the Republican Party should be, which is a far cry from its current incarnation. This clearly supports the argument that Sorkin uses his political work as a response to his antagonisms with the right wing.

In conclusion, it is without a doubt that some of Sorkin’s work in The West Wing is a response to the presidency of George W. Bush. This is clearly shown through the character of Governor Robert Ritchie. On the other hand, this is in part juxtaposed in The West Wing due to the similarities between the foreign policy and views on terrorism shared between the Bartlet and the Bush administrations. However, there are many aspects of The West Wing, as well as the entirety of the first two seasons of The Newsroom that go to war with the GOP and socially conservative values that much of the party upholds. Sorkin’s work prior to the election of George W. Bush is both reactionary in nature and mainly aimed at the Republican Party on a variety of issues. Sorkin is unapologetically liberal and his work in The Newsroom has addressed the foreign policy faux pas of his later work in The West Wing. The final point of this paper is that to some extent, the work of Aaron Sorkin is a response to the presidency of George W. Bush, but it is to a much greater extent a response to the Republican Party to which he served and the conservative ideology that encompasses it today.


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One thought on “To what extent are the works of Aaron Sorkin a response to the presidency of George W. Bush?

  1. It was fascinating to read this. Being an ex-pat from the motion picture/TV industry, it influences my views on topics like this. I tend to think most playwrights in the biz are shaped more by whatever garners significant financial success. They try to write in a variety of styles, but end up producing work based on whatever becomes a hit. The piece that opened all the doors for Sorkin was “A Few Good Men”, which was first a play based on experiences of his sister, who had been a military lawyer. He sold the film rights for a very large sum, then worked at Castle Rock for a whole decade as a script doctor and jack-of-all-trades genre writer. His last screenplay at Castle Rock was “The American President”, a precursor to his work on “The West Wing”. But that came out during the Clinton presidency, five years before GW Bush’s first, highly controversial election, and he had worked on that script for years. He then proceeded to create a low-rated, critically acclaimed TV series called “Sports Night”, a behind-the-scenes show based on the work and relationships at an ESPN-type network. That experience got recycled into “The Newsroom”.

    I do expect the second Bush presidency influenced his choices of what to write about over time, but I also think it had to come at a career point where Sorkin had enough freedom to initiate projects on his own. Industry bosses at the networks loved “Sports Night”, and wanted to greenlight another show, but Sorkin himself loved working on political themes for “The American President”. To me, creating West Wing looks primarily like a combination of those two factors.

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