The West Wing and Dirty Hands: Bartlett the Man and President
Josiah Bartlett, the beloved president of the now re-ran show, The West Wing, was an idealist. He was often portrayed as a moral man and an ardent Catholic. He went to Notre Dame, believing he might become a priest. He quoted the Bible on numerous occasions and many times found himself looking to God for his answers. And now, in hindsight, as a political theory student, he is the perfect model and object of study in the Problem of Dirty Hands. Bartlett, the pious man and Bartlett, the political figure often differed. Bartlett, the political figure was willing to cover up his multiple sclerosis, kill a dangerous foreign minister and execute (through a decision of inaction) a drug dealer. He did all of these things to attain and preserve his political power and to do what he thought was best for the nation’s people. He committed immoral actions. He recognized his sin and yet, he still decided to commit those actions.
Michael Walzer, in his article, “Political Action: The Problem of Dirty Hands” argues that a politician’s “willingness to acknowledge and bear his guilt is evidence, and it is the only evidence he can offer us, both that he is not too good for politics and that he is good enough.” On first glance it appears as if President Bartlett, a man who was often forced to reveal his secrets to the public but never apologized for his actions, would not be the perfect model for Walzer’s theory. Bartlett never said sorry for deceiving the public or for killing people. And yet, the voting public still re-elected him by a heavy margin and he ended up leaving office with over a 60% approval rating (a number that seems unthinkable in our everyday American politics!). However, a deeper look into the situation ends up giving further evidence to Walzer’s philosophical claim.
The West Wing as a show was very successful. Over its seven-season run, it won over 27 Emmy’s and acquired millions of fans (myself included). The viewership increased because of solid actors and a great writer in Aaron Sorkin (who wrote the now popular The Social Network). The ratings sky-rocketed, though, because of the likability of the show’s characters – namely, President Josiah Bartlett. People loved the everyday struggle of pious Bartlett against political Bartlett. They wanted the President to do his job, but they also wanted him to feel bad about it. Every week, they got to publically witness their President’s repentance and action. This wasn’t just for the entertainment value – The West Wing fanatics (especially I) wanted the show to represent the real-life scenario. The public wants their politicians to have dirty hands, and they want them to feel bad about it. President Bartlett, a Catholic by day and an economist by trade, delved into philosophy without even knowing it. Through his TV show and his ratings, he made me give credence to Michael Walzer and his Problem of Dirty Hands.