Date of Thesis

Spring 2019

Thesis Type

Honors Thesis

Degree Type

Bachelor of Arts

Major

Political Science

Second Major

Theatre & Dance

First Advisor

Scott Meinke

Keywords

political science, television, American presidency

Abstract

From 1999-2006, Aaron Sorkin’s television show The West Wing entertained audiences with a weekly backstage pass to life in the White House. While the show featured plotlines regarding the characters’ personal lives, it also centered the policy decisions of President Bartlet and his staffers, and it informed audiences about political issues and tools. With background research, I confirmed that the style of the show was a valuable educational tool, as it used both episodic and thematic framing devices when discussing different political issues. My understanding of its ability to influence audiences’ understandings of political issues lead my interest in understanding how the show could influence audiences’ understanding of the American presidency as a whole. I used three theories to understand how presidential behavior is interpreted in both public and private affairs. Greenstein’s theory of presidential characteristics explains how the president’s personality will predict his success in office by viewing a president’s strengths and weaknesses in political skill, vision, organizational capacity, cognitive style, public communication, and emotional intelligence. Skowronek’s theory of political time predicts the behavior of a president within the cycle of reconstructive, articulative, preemptive, and disjunctive presidents that Skowronek traces throughout America’s modern presidency. Lastly, Howell’s theory of presidential power articulates his belief that presidents are constantly seeking to expand the power of the office and display power externally to other countries in order to maintain the vision of strength that the American people demand of their leaders. Through analysis of Bartlet’s discussions and policies surrounding homosexual rights, gun legislation, terrorism and foreign intervention, presidential nominations and endorsements, the First Lady, and scandals, I compared Bartlet’s political actions to the actions of Clinton and Bush in order to gain a detailed understanding of Bartlet’s political style and his decisions on topics that were relevant in the modern world. Through this, I determined that Bartlet’s greatest strengths are his organizational capacity and public communication, and that while his vision and political skill are his biggest weaknesses according to Greenstein, Sorkin frames them as strengths because his flexibility allows him to respond freely to a rapidly-changing nation. Bartlet largely defies Howell’s theory of presidential power, begging the question of the necessity and ethics of constant presidential power expansion. Lastly, I determined that Bartlet is a preemptive president because he prioritizes his personal political beliefs over fulfilling the desires of his party or predecessors. With all of these ideologies considered, I came to realize that Sorkin’s biggest argument with Bartlet is the idea that a president’s personal ethics and political decisions should align, and that Bartlet is an ideal president because he prioritizes the nation’s needs over his personal political gain.

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