President Obama is often credited with inspiring political idealism in young people (at least until the campaign ended and actual governing began). But before Obama there was Aaron Sorkin and President Josiah Bartlet. It’s been nearly 6 years since the series finale of The West Wing, and more than 12 since the one-hour drama, which Sorkin created and largely wrote, first walked and talked its way through NBC’s Wednesday-night lineup; and yet you might think the series never ended, given the currency it still seems to enjoy in Washington, the frequency with which it comes up in D.C. conversations and is quoted or referenced on political blogs. In part this is because the smart, nerdy—they might prefer “precocious”—kids who grew up in the early part of the last decade worshipping the cool, technocratic charm of Sorkin’s characters have today matured into the young policy prodigies and press operatives who advise, brief, and excuse the behavior of the most powerful people in the country.
In the same way that the noble, sleeves-rolled sleuthing of Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman as Woodward and Bernstein in All the President’s Men prompted legions of baby-boomers to dream of careers in journalism, The West Wing, which made policy discussions seem thrilling and governing heroic, has become a totem—its romanticization of a stuffy, insular industry infusing a historically uncool career with cultural cachet. Rather than treat the political process as risible at best (Dick, say, or Primary Colors), a horror show at worst (The Ides of March), The West Wing was pluckily idealistic. A hyper-real drama about waiting for a callback from some freshman congressman (D—Nowheresville) would have sent aspiring White House interns and aides running back to law school. Instead, The West Wing “took something that was for the most part considered dry and nerdy—especially to people in high school and college—and sexed it up,” says Eric Lesser, who worked in the Obama White House as a special assistant to former senior adviser David Axelrod and is now a student at Harvard Law School.