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The West Wing and Dirty Hands: Bartlett the Man and President

October 4, 2010

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.

2 Comments
  1. Derek Mohr permalink
    October 4, 2010 11:00 PM

    Jed Bartlett is a great example of a political leader who is willing to get his hands dirty while recognizing the immoral nature and sin of his actions. As a fellow West Wing fanatic I appreciate the relation of Jed Bartlett to Walzer’s writing. As to the question you posted in your poll I think that it is nearly impossible to have a compelling political figure represented in a TV show that does not get their hands dirty unless their lack of “dirty” political action leads to radical consequences.

  2. glterryn permalink
    October 6, 2010 2:02 AM

    Bartlett from “The West Wing” is a great connection to Walzer’s paper on dirty hands. However, what i appreciate most about this video clip is its connection to the religious aspect of dirty hands. We see the president executing the catholic interpretation of dirty hands. He does wrong, admits its wrong, does penance for his sins, then goes back to work. This is exactly what the constituents expect out of their political leaders, a willingness to get their hands dirty and a sense of morality to wash them off after doing so.

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