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The debate about liberal bias heats up

The debate about liberal bias heats up. This week’s standard — but hawkish — plot and Aaron Sorkin’s public comments about Bush revive questions about how lefty the show really is, says Bruce Fretts

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Martin Sheen, The West Wing
West Wing Illustration by Eric Palma

The debate about liberal bias heats up

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: God bless Aaron Sorkin. The Feb. 27 episode of ”The West Wing” was a fairly standard offering, with a foreign-policy storyline (President Bartlet faces down China in a dispute over Taiwanese missile testing), a reelection-campaign storyline (Donna and Josh lobby long-distance for votes in the New Hampshire primary), and a comic-relief subplot (C.J. and Charlie engage in a war of practical jokes — is this really the best use of Allison Janney and Dule Hill?) Not a whole lot to write about here.

Meanwhile, the never media-shy Sorkin granted an interview to The New Yorker in which he backhandedly slammed President Bush — and provided me with a topic for my column! Media pitbulls like Fox News Channel’s Bill O’Reilly immediately seized on the story as evidence of Sorkin’s liberal bias. But does his show really lean to the Democratic side? (And please, readers, spare me the ”It should be called ‘The LEFT Wing’ postings — I’ve heard that one before).

First, let’s look at what Sorkin actually told The New Yorker. He claimed to support Bush ”one hundred percent” in the war on terrorism but questioned journalists’ post-Sept. 11 deification of him as a latter-day Teddy Roosevelt (”the media is waving pom-poms, and the entire country is being polite”). He excoriated fellow NBC employee Tom Brokaw for his special ”The Bush White House: Inside the Real West Wing” (”the show was a valentine to Bush”). Hmmm, media-bashing — isn’t that a great RIGHT-wing tradition?

Now let’s look at the episode’s content. The Prez orders the 7th Fleet to sail towards the Taiwan Strait in a hard-line attempt to get saber-rattling China to stand down. Bartlet explains his geopolitical maneuvering while engaging Sam (Rob Lowe) and Toby (Richard Schiff) in chess matches — not the subtlest metaphor. The military gambit works, and peace is restored to the region. The fact remains that Bartlet is hardly a lily-livered pacifist. He’s a hawk who often sends troops into harm’s way, if only to provide Sorkin with tense scenes of the Commander-in-Chief sweating bullets in the Sit Room.

As the fictional election campaign heats up, however, Sorkin’s true feelings about Dubya may come through more clearly in his scripts. Bartlet’s opponent will be Florida Gov. Robert Ritchie, whom Sorkin described in The New Yorker as someone who’s ”not the sharpest tool in the box but who’s raised a lot of money and is very popular with the Republican Party.” Any resemblance to our current President is strictly intentional. That may or may not be fair, but as long as it provides more fodder for my column, I ain’t complaining.

Do you think ”The West Wing” exhibits a liberal bias?