Before he became an MSNBC host, Lawrence O’Donnell spent seven years as a writer and, eventually, executive producer on the West Wing. So it’s surprising that one of the key writers behind a show that’s liberal canon agrees that President Bartlet isn’t a progressive hero. As O’Donnell told ThinkProgress in a phone interview yesterday, “It used to drive me nuts when people would simply and offhandedly refer to him as a liberal president. … It would just be ‘oh he told off the religious right.’ Who gives a fuck? Tell me, what was the bill? What was the law?”
Indeed, O’Donnell was pessimistic about liberalism’s prospects throughout the conversation. He always “kinda assumed” the West Wing’s writers “knew this guy was not a liberal” because he said the show was committed to painting a realistic portrait of what is possible in American politics, and “there was no known equation in which a liberal becomes President of the United States.”
As evidence of this point, that only Democrats tainted by a streak of conservatism can become president, O’Donnell cited presidential candidate Bill Clinton’s decision to fly home to Arkansas to personally oversee the execution of Ricky Ray Rector, a death row inmate who self-lobotomized himself in a failed suicide attempt that left him unable to even understand what it meant to be executed. When prison guards arrived to escort him to the death chamber, Rector told them that he was saving the pecan pie from his last meal “for later.”
President Bartlet came from a very different state than President Clinton. As the former governor of New Hampshire, Bartlet would have presided over a state where the death penalty was technically legal, but has not actually been carried out since 1939. As such, the first time Bartlet had to decide whether to offer a last minute reprieve to a condemned man came in the Oval Office, and it ends with Bartlet confessing to his priest that he lacked the political courage to do so:
O’Donnell’s pessimism was at its apex when he discussed his process behind writing this scene. “When I proposed a death penalty episode…the backstory that I wrote in my head for this president is that he pandered on the death penalty, just like every Democrat who doesn’t believe in it, in order to get elected president. And he was from a state where he never had to use the death penalty anyway.”
If anything, however, O’Donnell describes a West Wing writers’ room that was even more pessimistic than the facts on the ground required. We asked why Bartlet did not at least fight to enact a prescription drug plan for seniors or major immigration reform, both of which were realistic enough goals that they were attempted (in the first case, successfully) by President Bush. O’Donnell questioned whether Bush’s rare flirtations with progressivism were really grounds for optimism — Bush’s Medicare expansion, O’Donnell emphasized, was poorly designed. This is certainly true, but if a conservative like President Bush was willing to fight for a Medicare expansion that was not paid for, surely it would not have pushed the bounds of realism for President Bartlet to at least try to enact a similar expansion and also pay for it.
Ultimately, O’Donnell agreed that the West Wing writers’ room was a little too pessimistic about our politics’ potential to reach above the moment and achieve something transformative. When asked if Barack Obama — who actually did fight (and occasionally, win) major battles on health care, immigration, economic policy and the environment — is a better president than Josiah Bartlet, O’Donnell was unequivocal. “Of course. Incomparable. Of course.” And then he went further: “The West Wing writers room would not have come up with the idea of running a presidential campaign in which an African-American gets elected. Because the realism view would have said that’s not possible. And I say that with no disrespect for the creative process, but rather with a greater respect and awe for the real world. … We are lucky enough to live in a country in which our politics in 2008 soared above the creative imagination of its fiction writers.”