The West Wing ran on TV from the beginning of the Bush administration to a couple of years shy of its end, and for many--including us--the fictional President Josiah Bartlet was our real President. As Pat Caddell (a consultant and writer for the series, as well as a real West Winger in the Carter White House) says, "It's a show that gives people hope."
Caddell's statement is on a DVD from the first season of the series, which we are happily watching now. It's altogether proper and fitting that we do so, as a prelude to the Obama Inaugural, since he represents the president we've been hoping for--and which, I am seeing anew--the president that this series has prepared us for.
Lawrence O'Donnell, who does political commentary now but was a producer on this show, pointed out during the campaign the eerie coincidences of the Obama-McCain race to the presidential contest the series did in its last season, in which a character played by Alan Alda based loosely on John McCain was defeated by a character played by Jimmy Smits who was based pretty directly on a charismatic but inexperienced Senator from Illinois, Barack Obama. (That's a photo of Smits and Obama, who first met when Smits was researching the role.)
But it was long before that last season that The West Wing was preparing us for Obama. In fact it started the first season with Martin Sheen as President Bartlet. A prime example in a first season episode: once Bartlet and his staff decide to cut back on the political calculation and take some principled stands, Bartlet tells his chief of staff, Leo (played by the incomparable John Spencer) "I'm sleeping better. And when I sleep I dream about a great discussion, with experts and ideas and diction and energy and honesty. And when I wake up I think, I can sell that."
That's the kind of presidency that Barack Obama sold to the American people during the campaign. Right now, more than two thirds of Americans polled by CNN consider Obama a strong leader, and 80% have confidence in him. Not everything he does is going to be popular, and I will be expressing my disagreements as they come. But I do believe that we are going to have great discussion, with experts and ideas and--this has to be my favorite word, thrown in there--diction, as well as energy and honesty. And complexity.
It's going to confuse some people, but sooner or later it's going to change the national dialogue. As for right now, there are these great DVDs. (I wrote a little more about them here.) This was our government in exile, and it showed the way to the change we can believe in.