The West Wing
At times, the modern political climate may seem stranger than fiction, so it may be comforting (or disconcerting) to know that several recent political events initially took place years prior, on NBC's beloved series The West Wing, which aired from 1999 to 2006. While some of its more prescient episodes tackle obvious issues (i.e. "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"), other coincidences are downright bizarre (i.e. characters who bear striking similarities to Barack Obama and John McCain squaring off in a presidential election four years before they did so in real life). Is creator Aaron Sorkin a soothsayer?
Here, we break down the 19 times The West Wing most blatantly mirrored or predicted real-life politics. Bartlet for America indeed!
The West Wing and more shows we're binge-watching this summer
Cuban refugees (Season 1, Episode 1): The West Wing's pilot, which aired on Sept. 22, 1999, focuses on the Bartlet administration dealing with a group of 137 Cuban refugees who come to the United States seeking asylum. The plot foreshadowed the real-life situation of Elian Gonzalez, a 6-year-old Cuban refugee whose mother drowned while attempting to bring him to the United States in November 1999.
Supreme Court nominations (Season 1, Episode 9): In the episode "The Short List," when weighing the options for his first nomination to the Supreme Court, President Jed Bartlet (Martin Sheen) goes against popular thinking and decides to nominate the court's first Hispanic justice, a liberal from Brooklyn named Roberto Mendoza (Edward James Olmos). A decade later, for his first appointment to the high court, President Obama selected Bronx native Sonia Sotomayor, who became the first Hispanic Supreme Court justice.
Privacy (Season 1, Episode 9): In the same Supreme Court episode, Bartlet drops his first pick for the nomination in part because of his views on privacy, which deputy White House communications director Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe) warns will be the dominant issue of the next two decades. ("I'm talking about the Internet. I'm talking about cell phones. I'm talking about health records and who's gay and who's not.") Sam's prediction has come true, with both the Bush and Obama administrations having to tangle with privacy laws with regard to The Patriot Act, privacy issues surrounding social media use, and intellectual property legislation like the PROTECT IP Act and the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), to name a few.
Hate crime legislation (Season 1, Episode 10): After press secretary C.J. Cregg (Allison Janney) hears about a high school student who was murdered for being gay, she tries to convince the other senior staff members to work on hate crime legislation in response. The episode was based on the real life case of Matthew Shepard, a gay teen who was murdered in 1998 in Wyoming. At the time, attempts were made to expand hate crime laws to include sexual orientation, but failed on both the federal and state levels. Ten years later, President Obama signed The Matthew Shepard Act into law.
Federal executions (Season 1, Episode 14): On the West Wing episode "Take This Sabbath Day," President Bartlet debates reversing the Supreme Court's decision to execute a drug lord who had been convicted of a drug-related murder. (He decides to uphold the sentence.) This mirrors President Bill Clinton's decision to twice postpone the execution of drug kingpin and convicted murderer Juan Raul Garza, who was eventually put to death in June 2001 under President George W. Bush.
"Don't Ask, Don't Tell" (Season 1, Episode 19): In the episode "Let Bartlet Be Bartlet," with the president's approval ratings plummeting, the senior staff comes to the realization that Bartlet has been "stuck in neutral" as he goes against his liberal instincts to appease moderates. The episode also features Sam and White House communications director Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff) talking with military leaders about changing the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy toward gays. President Obama, who has faced similar criticism from some Democrats about not being liberal enough, repealed the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy in 2011. He also was the first president to come out in favor of gay marriage (possibly in response to a slip-of-the-tongue by Vice President Joe Biden) six months before the 2012 election.
Big Block of Cheese Day (Seasons 1 and 2): In Seasons 1 and 2, the Bartlet White House resurrects President Andrew Jackson's tradition of having a "Big Block of Cheese Day," an open house that allowed citizens to discuss issues with White House staff members (and that featured at 1,400-pound block of cheese in the foyer of the White House that attendees could partake in as well). Inspired by The West Wing, the Obama administration hosted a virtual "Big Block of Cheese Day" in 2014, during which White House officials answered questions from regular Americans via social media.
Osama Bin Laden (Season 2, Episode 1): In the two-part Season 2 premiere "In the Shadow of Two Gunmen," the staff deals with the aftermath of a shooting in Rosslyn, Va., in which President Bartlet and Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford) are wounded. National Security Advisor Nancy McNally (Anna Deavere Smith) posits that Osama Bin Laden could be responsible if the attackers were foreign. The episode aired nearly a year before the Sept. 11 attacks.
Dr. Jenna = Dr. Laura (Season 2, Episode 3): On the Season 2 episode "The Midterms," President Bartlet issues a verbal smackdown to conservative radio host Dr. Jenna Jacobs (Claire Yarlett), who is based on the real-life Dr. Laura Schlessinger. Bartlet's tirade about Dr. Jacobs' views on gay people borrows heavily from an "open letter" to Schlessinger that was circulated online in 2000 regarding her comments on civil unions, which had just been made legal in Vermont.
Filibuster frenzy (Season 2, Episode 17): When "The Stackhouse Filibuster" aired during Season 2 of The West Wing, filibusters of the type depicted in the episode — during which 78-year-old Sen. Howard Stackhouse (George Coe) filibusters for eight hours in order to add an autism research amendment to a child healthcare bill — were relatively uncommon. But Stackhouse's stand is nothing compared to the 2013 efforts of Sen. Wendy Davis, who filibustered for 11 hours to delay voting on an abortion bill, or Sen. Ted Cruz, who filibustered for 21 hours against the Affordable Care Act.
Kidnapped Journalists (Season 3, Episode 13): On the episode "Night Five," an American newspaper reporter is kidnapped and murdered by rebels in the Congo, despite efforts by the White House to rescue him. The episode aired during the abduction of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in Pakistan, though it had been written months prior to Pearl's kidnapping. Though Pearl's condition was unknown at the time the episode aired, it was later learned that he was beheaded by members of Al-Qaeda.
The Buffett Rule (Season 4, Episode 16): Back in 2003, Bartlet staffer Will Bailey (Joshua Malina) explained to a group of interns his proposed "Buffett Rule," which would raise taxes for people making more than $1 million a year. Nearly 10 years later, President Obama proposed a nearly identical plan. The bill was blocked by a Republican filibuster in 2012.
One Fish, Two Fish (Season 5, Episode 5): Whitford's character Josh Lyman was reportedly based on Rahm Emanuel, who later served as President Obama's chief of staff. In the late 1980s, when Emanuel was working for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, he reportedly sent a 30-inch dead fish to a pollster who he discovered had been fudging numbers. (And this wasn't his only fishy action. In 2013, Emanuel sent a pizza topped with rotting fish to Jon Stewart after Stewart railed against deep-dish pizza on The Daily Show. He also received a dead carp as a farewell present when he left the Obama Administration in 2010.) In Season 5, on his birthday, Josh finds a dead fish wrapped in newspaper on his desk, as retribution for him playing the same prank on a senator.
Shut it down! (Season 5, Episodes 7,8): In 2013, the U.S. government shut down for the first time in 17 years — unless you count the West Wing episode "Shutdown," in which President Bartlet opts to shut down the federal government rather than giving in to Republican budget demands that would cut funding from education programs and clean energy research. Sound familiar? The 2013 shutdown, which lasted more than two weeks, was brought about because the Republican-led House of Representatives was trying to postpone or defund entirely President Obama's Affordable Care Act. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid also echoed President Bartlet in accusing Republicans of holding "a gun to our heads."
DOMA (Season 5, Episode 17): On the episode "The Supremes," Toby argues with a conservative Supreme Court nominee about the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act. In real life, the measure was taken up (and overturned by the Supreme Court) in 2013's landmark case Windsor v. United States.
The debt ceiling (Season 6, Episode 20): Throughout President Obama's two terms in office, Democrats and Republicans have repeatedly clashed over the issue of raising the debt ceiling. In February 2014, Obama signed legislation that would raise the U.S. debt limit through March 2015. In "In God We Trust," Toby explains how stalemates over the debt ceiling are simultaneously "routine" and "the end of the world."
Santos v. Vinick = Obama v. McCain (Seasons 6 and 7): In what is perhaps the most blatant (and eerie!) instance of The West Wing predicting actual political events, presidential candidates Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits) and Arnold Vinick (Alan Alda) were based on Barack Obama and John McCain — six years before they ran against each other in the 2008 election. Like Obama (who was a political upstart in Chicago at the time), Santos is a minority candidate who uses words like "Hope" and "Change" in his stump speeches and advocates for universal health care, going up against Vinick — a veteran conservative who is far from beloved by his party (a la McCain) and who defeated a religious extremist to win the nomination (a la Mike Huckabee). Other striking similarities? Like McCain and Obama, both fictional candidates are Congressmen, somewhat a rarity in presidential races. Vinick picks a little-known far right-wing governor from a fringe state to be his running mate (a la Sarah Palin), while Santos opts for Washington insider Leo McGarry (John Spencer), the fictional counterpart to Joe Biden. On The West Wing, after Santos wins the election, he taps his opponent to be Secretary of State, similar to how President Obama did Hillary Clinton in 2008. Also, Vinick uses the line "I will use this pen to veto [an unbalanced budget]," holding up a pen, during one of the debates — a line McCain dusted off to use himself during a debate in 2008.
Leaks (Seasons 6 and 7): A prominent storyline in Seasons 6 and 7 of The West Wing concerned a leak of sensitive information from a senior staffer at the White House, who reveals to a New York Times reporter the existence of a top-secret military space shuttle. The plot bears a resemblance to the Valerie Plame affair, in which a Washington Post reporter revealed Plame's identity as a CIA agent. The reporter on The West Wing is sentenced to jail for refusing to reveal his source, as New York Times reporter Judith Miller was in relation to the Plame affair. On The West Wing, Toby admits to being the leak and is dismissed from the Bartlet administration, but is later pardoned by President Bartlet on his last day in office. In real life, the Vice President's Chief of Staff Scooter Libby was arrested, though State Department official Richard Armitage, who admitted to leaking the information about Plame, was never punished. President George W. Bush eventually commuted Libby's two-and-a-half-year prison sentence.
Santos' "Impossible Situation" (Season 7, Episode 19): When Santos becomes president on The West Wing, he laments the "impossible situation" he faces in inheriting the administration's policy to resolve a crisis between Russia and China over Kazakhstan. "I'm going to be this country's president in two months and everybody in the world knows it, and meanwhile I'm just supposed to sit back and shrug while this administration commits this country to a military situation it admits it has no exit strategy for." Similarly, when Barack Obama became president in 2008, the U.S. was five years into the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — with no end in sight. In July 2008, Obama gave a speech regarding the conflicts, saying: "This war distracts us from every threat that we face and so many opportunities we could seize. ... By any measure, our single-minded and open-ended focus on Iraq is not a sound strategy for keeping America safe."
Catch up on West Wing episodes here.