Peter Black AM: From Wales to the West Wing

As politicans enjoy the summer recess Liberal Democrat Assembly Member Peter Black, writing EXCLUSIVELY for CARDIFF EAST, examines the appeal of the American tv show The West Wing which ran for seven seasons between 1999 and 2006 winning three Golden Globe Awards and 27 Emmy Awards.

The West Wing: President Josiah Bartlet surrounded by his closest staff.

As the summer recess got underway I eyed up a long ignored present, the DVD set of the complete seven series of the West Wing and decided it was time to renew the experience. There have been some late nights but it has been worth it.

Politics is addictive. If you let it, it will dominate your life. Like most addicts I cannot explain it. As a profession, whether one is full-time and paid, or just a volunteer, it dominates your life.

The West Wing is not like any kind of politics I have experienced. You never see the candidate delivering his own leaflets in the rain or having doors closed in his face for example.

What do you see is wheeler and dealing at the highest level. It is a human drama, full of flawed characters and high intrigue. Above all the good guys always win, even if they have had to compromise a bit on the way and liberalism triumphs every time. If only.

The high moral tone is a massive contrast to the Clinton years, whilst the humanity of the President and his entourage and the quality of the debate within the White House and with Congress far surpasses anything we can imagine going on in the George W Bush administration.

Without exception the characters work long and punishing hours and are motivated by nothing more than the desire to serve and to deliver on their agenda. Partisan republicans put ambition and monetary reward to one side to work for the President of the United States, a moderate Republican Presidential Candidate, played by Alan Alda rails against the way that the religious right is hijacking his party.

"I serve at the pleasure of the President" Toby Zielger, Josh Lyman, C.J. Gregg & Sam Seaborn

Chief of Staff: Leo McGarry

It is feel-good television. We cannot help but get a vicarious pleasure from immersing ourselves in the story line and the development of the characters. Why is politics not like this in real life?

But despite the in-built optimism this fiction is based on real events. The programme was advised by White House insiders and by people who have seen the real-thing at first hand. In many ways this is the White House those advisors wished they had worked in.

And of course even in Wales, the process of government does work like this sometimes albeit on a much smaller scale.  So why have we never been able to produce a series with as much charisma and incident as the West Wing? What is it about American politics that enables drama to be drawn on such a large canvass?

The best we have been able to do is Yes Prime Minister, which highlighted the absurdities of power and British politics or perhaps House of Cards. The West Wing never really came down to that level nor did it make fun of the Presidency in the same way as the British shows usurped the dignity of or parodied the office of Prime Minister.

President Josiah Bartlet

The difference lies in the systems of government and the way they operate. America has a written constitution with checks and balances that lends itself easily to dramatic tension. Britain has an archaic system of government that is still riddled with contradictions and bizarre conventions.

Here the drama is in the internal workings of the political party or parties in power within a Parliamentary system. On the other side of the Atlantic it is about the business of government itself.

It could be said that the popularity of the West Wing in Britain amongst politicos says a lot about our yearning for an American system of government. However, as with many other traditions from other countries we need to be careful what we wish for.

It has often been the case that we have taken ideas from other countries only to see them flop in Britain, the so-called café culture being one example. Such grafts do not always take, and in the case of political systems often lead to unintended outcomes.

I will continue my West Wing marathon over the summer recess in the knowledge that it is a unique and unrepeatable experience that for a brief period captured a mood, an ideal of the sort of liberal democracy many of us would like to see. Maybe one day it really will be like that.

Former US Vice-President Al Gore meets the cast of The West Wing. Al Gore's former chief speechwriter Eli Attie was one of the producers on the show who is credited with bringing great realism to the fictional White House of Jed Bartlet.

Peter Black

Peter Black is the Liberal-Democrat Assembly Member for the South Wales West Region. Black was first elected to the Welsh Assembly in 1999. He is currently the Assembly Commissioner and Welsh Liberal Democrat Spokesperson for Housing and Finance. Black served as Deputy Minister for Local Government between 2000 – 2003. Peter Black is also widely respected as one of the best political bloggers in the country.

You can follow Peter Black AM on

twitter: @peterblackwales



You can order the The West Wing – Complete Season 1 -7 (New Slimline Box Set) DVD from Amazon here.


One Response

  1. The creative genius behind ‘The West Wing’ was its creator and chief writer for four seasons Aaron Sorkin. He developed a reputation for sophisticated, fast paced dialogue that characters would exchange during the show’s famous ‘walk and talks’. To ensure the viewer did not find the action on the screen sedentary the actors gave a visible reminder as to their busy lives by the furious pace they walked the corridors of the White House.

    My favourite character is Toby Zielger, Director of Communications in the Bartlet White House. Zielger is the conscience of the administration. He is also the voice of the President, the chief speechwriter who conveys the President’s thoughts to the world and to history.

    For inspiration Zielger has a photo of John F. Kennedy, his brother Edward and Theodore Sorensen in his office. Ted Sorensen is probably the most gifted Presidential speechwriter that has ever lived helping shape the words of JFK that inspired the 1960s.

    Although invariably grumpy there is no escaping the sheer humanity of Zielger who believes that the Bartlet administration has the opportunity not to merely manage but to shape the America and the world as a better place for all.

    Peter Black is right ‘The West Wing’ is a sort of ideal, the sort of liberal democracy that many of us would like to see.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s