'West Wing' star Martin Sheen: Donald Trump gets away with more than any TV president could

Melinda Henneberger, Opinion columnist
·5 min read

For the past couple of months, I’ve been escaping pretty regularly from the America in which the president tells white supremacists to “stand by” and brags about how clean the cages where we keep children are. Late at night, I slip off to the America in which the president can keep a staff and is a man in constant communication with his conscience.

Of course, I’m talking about Jed Bartlet’s America, in the 1999-2006 television show "The West Wing," where the commander in chief would rather step down during a personal crisis than risk even the temptation of putting his own interests ahead of ours. Where the leader in the other party who briefly fills in after the 25th Amendment is invoked doesn’t try to change the locks at the White House. And where aides both brilliant and morally sentient get up every day wondering how they can contribute to the common good. Who knew that watching federal employees comply with the Hatch Act could be so stirring?

The night that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died, it was cathartic to watch a grieving President Bartlet ask God what the actual hell in Latin. And during Judge Amy Coney Barrett's confirmation hearings, how poignant to hear potential Bartlet nominees say no president would ever try to replace a conservative icon on the Supreme Court with a far left liberal, or vice versa.

A 'referendum on the republic'

Lately, on my pretend getaways from the real president, I’ve been wondering what Josiah Bartlet would make of an election season so late stage in its malignancy, a tape of the first lady asking “You know, who gives a f--- about Christmas stuff and decoration?” was barely a one-day story.

The guy who played President Bartlet for seven seasons, the actor and activist Martin Sheen, said his character wouldn’t see this as an election season at all, in any traditional sense. “It isn’t that," he told me in an interview. "It’s a referendum on the republic. That’s where we are.”

Because, and Sheen should know, Donald Trump “is an actor. He’s an actor. Not a good one, because he has no sense of truth. His instinct is to bully and to be what it’s all about all the time — all the time. This administration, what the hell was their policy on anything? I hate to say this, but it is a show. It is a series. Every day is a new episode, and every day, it’s all about him, all the time.”

“You watched him with the White House task force” on COVID-19? “He never left the stage. He was never more than 3 feet away from whoever was talking, and was either approving or disapproving by his body language.”

Martin Sheen in a scene from “A West Wing Special to Benefit When We All Vote."
Martin Sheen in a scene from “A West Wing Special to Benefit When We All Vote."

Sheen is blessedly confident that the reality show of Trump’s White House will soon be canceled by the American people. And though yes, a strong liberal himself, he hopes that the GOP, too, can be restored to what it once was.

“I grew up with Eisenhower; he didn’t even know he was a Republican” and might not have become one had the Democrats asked him to run first. “He was a general, a servant, a patriot, a fair-minded and decent man.”

Honor in the crunch: Conservatives voting Joe Biden over Donald Trump are patriots. Thanks for the inspiration.

Likewise, Sheen said, the Republicans whom Aaron Sorkin wrote for "West Wing" weren’t malevolent, and the actor appreciated that. “Aaron Sorkin never trashed the opposition. He exposed them, but he humanized them. Nobody was out to destroy anybody else” on the show. “It was people with differences of opinion trying to serve.”

Which is exactly how people in Washington describe how things used to be. For me, the appeal of Sorkin’s fictional public servants is that while they don’t always do the right thing, they desperately want to. They know what the right thing is. They are on speaking terms with their better angels. And they don’t think scruples are a weakness.

Biden really is the antidote

It was Sheen’s idea to make Bartlet a Catholic and a Notre Dame grad, but the specifics of his faith weren’t as important, he said, as that “I wanted Bartlet to face every situation, whether it was personal or public, that he would come from a moral frame of reference. I’ve always believed that if what you believe is not costly, then you’re left to question its value. So I wanted Bartlet to have that as a marker, that whatever he was engaged in, his personal beliefs were going to be costly,” both when he lived up to them and when he didn’t.

Does he ever look at this White House and think even a fictional president couldn’t have believably gotten away with what Trump has? Yes, Sheen said: “Oh my God, can you imagine?”

Hidden Common Ground: We found that Americans are more united than it appears

But in the real world, he said, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden really is the antidote, “because he put the focus on character. If you lead an honest life, then it’s going to reflect in everything you do, both publicly and privately. If you lead a dishonest life, that too will reflect, and that’s what’s happening with this administration. This man doesn’t trust the truth. He doesn’t trust himself because he’s not ever been honest.”

“That’s where we are,” Sheen repeated, “but that’s not where we’re going to stay.”

Thank you for saying that, Mr. President. By Inauguration Day, I’ll have come to the end of my "West Wing" marathon. But then, if the Trump show is canceled, I won’t need it as much.

Melinda Henneberger, a graduate of Notre Dame, is an editorial writer and columnist for The Kansas City Star and a member of the USA TODAY Board of Contributors. Follow her on Twitter: @MelindaKCMO

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Martin Sheen on tuning out Trump, tuning in 'West Wing' and Jed Bartlet