In the days after the recent US election, the world- still doubled over the loo dry-retching from Donald Trump’s shock victory- turned to the internet for solace, for distraction and for explanation. There were the excellent Obama/Biden memes, the endless op-eds about how the liberal press got this one so wrong, and there was Aaron Sorkin’s letter to his daughter, apologizing for letting her down, for letting a man like Trump get the keys to the kingdom.
I found this letter particularly poignant, and hilarious, because as far as I’m concerned, there is only one person to blame for Trump’s victory: Aaron Sorkin, who, in making a career out of rousing political fare like The American President, Charlie Wilson’s War and a little-known show called The West Wing has unintentionally created a generation of people who won’t get off their bums to support a candidate that isn’t ground-breaking, earth-shattering or awe-inspiring. For the Gen Y’s and millennials of this world, “competent”, doesn’t cut it.
Don’t get me wrong: I love Sorkin. (The Newsroom notwithstanding… that was sanctimonious twaddle) But let’s face it: the guy completely screwed our generation up. We didn’t watch Kennedy get shot. We didn’t live through Johnson and Vietnam or Nixon and Watergate or Reagan and the AIDS crisis: We were a generation without cynicism, without disillusionment. We grew up joyfully clueless on a diet of 80’s John Hughes films and 90’s boy bands and by the time we came of age there was only one true leader: President Josiah Bartlet with his band of tireless lackeys - more interested in serving the country than having a personal life.
Sorkin stacked The West Wing with dutiful public servants like Josh Lyman and Sam Seaborn, with their puppy dog eyes, floppy hairdos and their tireless optimism… Or the brilliant, curmudgeonly Toby Ziegler, and the fabulous Press Secretary CJ Cregg, an icon for smart girls everywhere. Bartlet himself was a beacon of reason and inspiration. He was a strict Catholic who could still rail against a cruel God in the National Cathedral; he was a liberal who didn’t believe in abortion but wasn’t going to tell women what to do with their bodies; he was the smartest (nerdiest) guy in the room who still liked to kick back with a beer and watch a football game at the end of the day. He was both extraordinary and immensely relatable. And when you spend eight years with Jed Bartlet as your president, no one else is going to come close.
But Jed Bartlet was a fiction.
No real candidate is perfect and no candidate will be everything to everyone. We used to understand this… we don’t anymore. Apart from the die-hard Hillary supporters, most people called her “the lesser of two evils”. A group of millennials interviewed by The Daily Show hilariously said that if Trump was like getting run over by a car, Hillary was like getting hit by it: you’d get knocked around but you probably wouldn’t die.
This “lesser of two evils” thing has been pulled out time and again by disillusioned voters the world over who are like patrons at a roadside diner: They’re hungry and they know they’ve got a long drive ahead but they’d rather sulk in the back of the car eating stale chips and dried out lollies than risk getting gastro from something they weren’t really excited to eat in the first place.
Here’s the thing: politicians aren’t usually exciting. Politicians are people who have spent a lifetime lobbying, schmoozing and masking their quirky eccentricities in order to appeal to the majority. It’s why we get attracted to people like Donald Trump- or, closer to home, Pauline Hanson- because they are exciting, even if that excitement is the kind you get waiting in line for a roller coaster, psyching yourself up for the first big drop whilst trying to ignore the people who have just come off the ride and are puking their guts out.
Aaron Sorkin made us believe otherwise, but even Jed Bartlet- were he a real candidate- would not be exciting. Sure, he had outrageously lofty morals and could pull off a neat jacket trick but essentially he was the consummate, lifelong politician most leaders are. He was only exciting because he had a brilliant actor bringing him to life, fabulous screenwriters telling him what to say and a glorious music score that swelled at his every patriotic syllable.
We need to stop craving excitement over stability and whilst we need to hold our leaders to a higher standard, it shouldn’t be an impossible one. But the thing is- much as he screwed us up- we now need Sorkin more than ever. We need to be inspired again. Sure, he may not have the greatest track record when it comes to writing non-irritating female characters; Sure, his casts are often whiter than the frozen tundras of Siberia, but dammit: he made us feel things. The American President showed us even the leader of the free world needs someone spunky like Annette Bening to hold them close at night. Tom Hanks in Charlie Wilson’s War might not have been inspiring in the traditional sense, but behind the hard-drinking, the bed-hopping and the bloviating, he was a politician with a good heart and a determination to do the right thing. And in The West Wing, Sorkin made us believe- to quote CJ Cregg, “If politics brings out the worst in people, maybe people bring out the best”. He unleashed a generation of wide-eyed, hopeful people into public office, determined to make a difference. Sure, once they got there they found out it was more boring negotiations in beige-coloured rooms than walking and talking at breakneck speed about the ten thousand ways you were going to change the world that day, but still: it was a start. And that’s what we need more of now. So if you’re depressed about Brexit, Trump or how Peter Dutton seems to be even more of a knob than previously thought possible, here’s my prescription for you:
Get a dose of Sorkin.
Start with The American President then work your way through Seasons 1-4 and then season 6-7 of The West Wing. (You can skip season 5 which is ultimately terrible except for one episode where Glenn Close plays a sassy Supreme Court nominee) And watch Charlie Wilson’s War on SBS this Friday night to see Tom Hanks and his good old American Apple- Pie values go up against those nasty Soviets in 1980’s Afghanistan. (If that doesn’t appeal to you there’s always Julia Roberts rocking some fabulous 80’s hair and the late, great Phillip Seymour Hoffman reminding us how much we miss him.) Hell, even check out The Social Network and Steve Jobs and yes, even The Newsroom if you have to. At worst, Sorkin can be a pretentious, mansplaining wanker. But at best, he’s a champion of the underdog with a big idea, a bigger heart and a desire to change the world.
I’m comfortable blaming Sorkin for creating a generation of people whining like spoilt children because no candidate truly inspires them, no candidate represents every single one of their values. I’m 100% convinced idealism has poisoned the well and the Trumpers and One Nation supporters have taken advantage of our apathy and run with it. But I also think maybe the antidote is in the poison… maybe what we need to combat this overwhelming cynicism is a reminder of what we once thought was possible: a little jab of hope and change to get us riled up again, to get us inspired to fight harder the next time around. So go on: get some Sorkin in your system. If nothing else, Jed Bartlet’s America might be a nice alternate reality to live out the next four years.
Find inspiration and watch your heart swell with Charlie Wilsons War on SBS this Friday night at 8:30pm.