Q&A: Bradley Whitford looks back on “The West Wing”

October 30, 2020

The actors of “The West Wing” reunited this month for a special benefiting When We All Vote, the voter registration group founded by former First Lady Michelle Obama. 

It was just the latest dip into real-life politics for the all-star cast, whose decades-ago portrayal of a fictional White House continues to have reverberations in the political sphere today. I discussed the reunion, and criticisms of the show’s impact on politics, with actor Bradley Whitford in a recent interview.

Whitford played White House Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman in the idealistic political drama and now stars in “The Handmaid’s Tale,” the dystopian series on Hulu. (“So my career’s sort of tracking the trajectory of American politics,” he joked.)


This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

It’s been reported that “The West Wing” cast has resisted reunions for a long time. Why did you feel this was the right time to come back together?


The farther all of us get away from it, the more lucky we feel to be able to have done that sort of non-cynical and emotionally, verbally, civically complex exaltation of public service. At first, nobody expected it to be taken seriously at all, honestly. And then the show kind of weirdly took on a political significance, because the only Democrats there were for a while were fictional ones. And you just don’t want to do a lesser version of it. Originally, I wanted to do something for Biden. But I think Aaron wanted to do something less explicitly partisan and When We All Vote was sort of the obvious answer.


You mentioned the political significance that the show took on. After the reunion, a reviewer in the Washington Post said that “the last thing America needs right now is more ‘West Wing.’ ” They wrote that the show was a “pipe dream” where “centric principles almost always triumph over politics.” How do you respond to that kind of criticism?


First of all, something that’s interesting to me is you can make a movie or a TV show that is cynical and violent and snarky, and you can get away with a lot that’s wrong with it, and people will go with it. When you do something that is not attempting to be snarky, but is attempting to be aspirational, you will absolutely get shit for it.


I don’t think our show should be taken seriously politically. I think it should be seriously in terms of taking [the themes of the show, such as] public service and the consequences of public service seriously. The right understands that politics and governance is the way you create your moral vision. They pretend that they hate government, but they understand that. And if they lose an election, they start a think tank and they run for the school board. [Progressives] lose an election, we say “the system’s corrupt” and we walk away. We don’t understand that government is the way you create your moral vision. We think it’s the stuff that I do: culture. And culture is really, really important. But, you know, “Will and Grace” won’t help you if you have a preexisting condition. You have to get a law passed.


There are some, though, who say that progressive movement in America was actually set back by “The West Wing.” Vox asked last year whether the show “broke the Democratic Party.” Some critics on the left blame “The West Wing” for a more compromising, centrist style that they say some Democratic leaders practice.


Yeah, I don’t know. I don’t think the celebration of the non-cynical public servant does a lot of damage. It does if you think something is going to be as easy in real life as it is when it’s scripted.


You know, there's a horrible way for me to say this, and I don’t even think I can say it. I was raised Quaker and people would say, how do you defend nonviolence in the face of Nazis? Well, first of all, I blame the fucking Nazis. The fakest thing about West Wing was we had rational Republicans. What is going on now is unprecedented. But no, of course, you’re not going to watch a TV show and make that a model for a political party.


Do you think that people have?


No. And I don't think that the show was advocating a strategy of caving in weakness. I do think that the values of television, the values of entertainment, invading politics, because public discourse happens on television, I do think that’s dangerous. Because it’s virtual. It's not the same thing. Aaron [Sorkin, the creator of “The West Wing”] would not say, “yeah, this is how you should run a country.” Or, “yeah, this is how you could run a country.” We were pretending. Now, Donald Trump is abhorrent to me. But clearly, he’s made his life being on TV. He, for some people, seemed presidential. In the way [fictional president] Jed Bartlet seemed presidential, in the way that I seemed like someone who worked in the White House.


I love Martin Sheen [who played Bartlet] to death. He would be a better president than this, but that isn't saying much. I’ve made a bizarre, lucky life out of the fact that the relationship between seeming and being is casual. They’re not even dating. And that’s what scares me. And if “The West Wing” perpetuated that notion or that’s what people got out of it, I don’t think that was the point. But yes, that’s not helpful. I mean, Barack Obama would never have become president if he wasn’t good on TV. And believe me, it’s a pathetic skill that has very little to do with inherent value.


It also, it would be a radically different show, you know, written in today’s political climate.


So you think that politics has changed? That it was just a different time, and the show held up then, but maybe not know?


Yeah, I guess. I think you’re asking, do I think that in dealing with Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump that the most effective strategy is to wander in in a cardigan and talk folksy? Fuck no. I disavow that.


Because Republicans have changed, you think, since the time of “The West Wing”?


Yes. I mean, they’ve gone insane. I think in a way, it’s like blaming the victim of a crime for wandering into a dangerous place or something.


There’s another criticism that’s been leveled at “The West Wing” recently, from people who go back and watch the Josh/Donna relationship [between Whitford’s character and his assistant] and question whether it holds up in the “Me Too” era. Have you rethought that portrayal of an office romance at all in the past few years, or how you acted it?


Well, yeah, I mean, to a certain extent. Listen, I thought Josh [Lyman, his character on the show] was a fucking idiot. He was this privileged, fancy college dude who thought he was so brilliant and who was generally brought down to earth and/or outsmarted by Donna. There’s a cockiness and a privilege to Josh that I thought was idiotic. When it came to women was, I always just felt like he was kind of stuck in seventh grade. I felt like there was something immature about him. I don’t think he’s a misogynist. I don’t think he overtly sexually harasses her. But I think he’s a sexist, privileged, kind of punk.

The show is 20 years old. And it was dealing with a different political environment. The question for me is, what are we blind to now? Because, yeah, Josh was an asshole, but I was kind of blind to it as I was doing it. I kind of thought he was a jerk. And now you look back at some of those things and think “Jesus, that's really sexist.”


It was just announced that you and a few other “West Wing actors” are collaborating on a book about the show and about civic engagement. Can you explain a little bit about that project and what we’re hoping to achieve with it?


Melissa Fitzgerald [the actress who played press assistant Carol Fitzpatrick], who is the most admirable cast member among us, she’s organizing it. We’re gonna talk about issues that we’re interested in. I am really interested, and the thing that I work on most are, voting rights. And this goes way, way back. My great-great-grandfather, who fought for the Union Army, fought to get mail-in ballots and worked to do the unfinished business of the Civil War to make it so that Black people could actually vote. I don’t think we can deal with the planet, I don’t think we can deal with health care, I don’t think we can deal with anything unless we iron out the functioning of our democracy first.


Who do you think Josh Lyman would have worked for in the 2020 Democratic primaries?


Maybe just because it’s me, and Josh’s politics are very close to me, I think it would have been Elizabeth [Warren]. I felt like she had a bold vision and a track record of results that would be something that would really appeal to Josh. But I think people feel like we actually have the right candidate. I think that emotionally, this [moment for the nation] is traumatic. And the economy, for a long time, it’s going to be traumatic. And Joe [Biden] is somebody who — given the unspeakable losses that he has survived — to use a “West Wing” reference, he’s been down in the hole and knows how to get out.


Are there any characters in “The West Wing” universe that you think are similar to Joe Biden, or to Donald Trump?


I think Biden’s got a little Bartlet in him. There is absolutely no character on “The West Wing” like Donald Trump. If I went into the writer’s room and said, “how about we make the Republican nominee a spray-tanned trust fund guy with a comb-over who’s gone bankrupt six times and ran a teen beauty pageant,” I would have been banished from the writer’s room for being so disrespectful to Republicans.