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President Bartlet's Bully Pulpit
by Ethan Tussey `

by Richard Newton for IN MEDIA RES

In Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing, Josiah Bartlet holds the office of President of the United States. But in a show that portrays the drama of partisan gridlock, Bartlet also resides as leader of the Democratic Party.

The following two clips show Martin Sheen paying homage to noteworthy liberals. The soft Kennedy “R,” the piety of Jimmy Carter, the folksy wit of Bill Clinton—Sorkin imbues the fictional president with the traits of the 20th century’s great leftists. Avid followers of the show know that Bartlet suffers from Multiple Sclerosis and adopts the cane and wheelchair present in some of FDR’s iconic poses (1:15). What does Sorkin intend to convey by this? The fictional president’s name suggests the writer’s intent.

Josiah was the name of one of Israel’s kings in the Old Testament.  The kingdom of Judah had fallen into chaos because its rulers had done evil in the sight of the Lord, But Josiah restored the kingdom’s famed glory by finding the Temple Scroll and following it faithfully. Like the kingly prophets of old, Sorkin’s president wields scroll (1:30) and scripture to rebuke those who have lost sight of righteousness.

Josiah Barlet’s more direct namesake is Josiah Bartlett, a delegate to the Continental Congress and signer of the Declaration of Independence. Bartlet and Bartlett both served the New Hampshire governorship. Viewers are reminded throughout the show’s seven seasons that Bartlet’s patriotism is a family affair.

Thus, Barlet stands as an ideal liberal interlocutor, charged with the role of countering the Christian Right’s monopoly on God and country. The 1998 impeachment of Bill Clinton spurred Republican moralism. And to quote a contemporaneous episode of Sorkin's Sports Night, "A lot of folks [were] running in that direction." But the Commander in Chief called the Left to arms; Sorkin presented a Democrat who was more Christian and more American than the GOP could ever imagine.

In the last few years the Bartlet Legacy has experienced a resurgence. Maureen Dowd invited Sorkin to “conjure a meeting” between Senator Obama and Bartlet. It was September 2008 and down in the polls, the candidate visits Sorkin’s Deus ex Machina for counsel. And today, 15,000 enjoy similar exchanges with @pres_bartlet. Sermons from Bartlet’s bully pulpit resound, and fans are still listening.

This Commentary is related to the following Clips:
President Barlet's Bully Pulpit by Aaron Sorkin (1999, 2000) Two clips from The West Wing dealing with Aaron Sorkin's use of religion through President Barlet. First half of the clip is from "Pilot" (s01ep01, 1999), second half is from "The Miterms" (so2ep03, 2000).