America’s complicated relationship with political scandals is nothing new. In 1831, Andrew Jackson’s entire cabinet was dismantled over the squabbling that ensued after Secretary Of War John Eaton married a woman that other cabinet members (and their wives) believed wooed him prior to her previous husband’s death. Historians say the chaos boosted the power and influence of Secretary Of State Martin Van Buren, who was elevated to vice president during the drama and eventually succeeded Jackson as president. And all this happened simply because some in Jackson’s administration felt poor Peggy Eaton didn’t meet the “moral standards” of a cabinet member’s wife. Seems so quaint now, given that Jackson’s lasting legacy remains his genocidal policies—not to mention, well, everything about the current administration.
What constitutes a scandal has clearly changed over the decades, but there has always been a sense of personal and national shame around particularly egregious improprieties, allegations of corruption, and other offenses. At least until now. One of the defining characteristics of the current administration is its inclination to revel in its seemingly unprecedented misconduct; while the media provides breathless coverage for eager viewers, only to see it surpassed in the next news cycle. But that evolution has not taken place solely in the world of 24-hour news. Over the past 20 years, we’ve seen a rapid escalation of how sordid a scandal must be to captivate the audience of a fictional White House as well.
American viewers cut their teeth on the dramas of The West Wing’s Bartlet administration before demanding the more sexually salacious and politically nefarious deeds of the “gladiators” on Scandal and then the undoing of the Underwoods on House Of Cards. It’s often said by talking heads on cable news that Trump is always and forever producing a TV show; it’s not a stretch to imagine that, in his warped mind, each fresh disaster delivered by tweet is just giving the audience what they want—a forever escalating deluge of drama.
There were a handful of short-lived TV shows about congressmen in the 1960s and early ’70s, and a few comedies about the First Family in the ’80s, but presidential drama was predominately consigned to movie theaters until recent decades. One such White House film was The American President, written by Aaron Sorkin and directed by Rob Reiner, and starring Michael Douglas, Annette Bening, and Martin Sheen. The 1995 movie—in which Douglas’ Commander In Chief romances Bening’s environmental lobbyist while balancing the challenges of passing a crime control bill during a re-election year—was a critical and financial success. In hopes that lightning would strike twice, Sorkin was urged by screenwriter friend Akiva Goldsman (Batman Forever, A Beautiful Mind) to develop a TV show based on his unused plot elements devised during the script’s development. The result, of course, was The West Wing.
Though The West Wing took place in a fictional timeline that diverged from our real one after the Nixon presidency, the NBC drama was undoubtedly influenced by the impeachment of Bill Clinton that took place just six months before the series premiered in September 1999. Sex and scandal were suddenly synonymous with the White House, and the opening scene of the series sees Deputy Communications Director Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe) waking up next to a woman, Laurie (Lisa Edelstein), whom he later finds out paid her way through law school by working as a prostitute. Sorkin had intended The West Wing to focus on Sam and his fellow senior White House staffers, with the president only popping in and out for a speech here and there. But Martin Sheen’s Jed Bartlet quickly proved a fan favorite, and the series was refocused to move the president front and center.
In season one, The West Wing was structured more as a procedural, with each episode introducing a new kerfuffle that would generally be wrapped up by the end credits. In the light of 2020, many of the red-alert crises seem mundane: Deputy Chief Of Staff Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford) is disgraced after insulting a Republican on a cable news show. Communications Director Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff) wants a Republican “hauled in for questioning” after they tell journalists the president “may not get out alive” of his district if he chooses to campaign there. The staff is investigated after a report comes out that one in three White House staffers are using drugs, resulting in the revelation that Chief Of Staff Leo McGarry (John Spencer) is an alcoholic and previously sought treatment after abusing Valium. The most serious of the scandals discussed during the first season is actually tossed off in the eighth episode, during a conversation in which Bartlet says he could receive “one to three years” in prison for something should it be found out, though it’s unclear if the passing comment is intended as a joke.
As the series progressed, it became more serial, and the scandals more serious—peaking with the seasons-long drama over Bartlet’s concealment of his relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis. In the 14 years since the series finale, The West Wing has seemingly developed two legacies: It’s a comfort blanket for those nostalgic for idyllic political decorum as it once was and could one day be again, or the frustrating blueprint that keeps Democrats looking to compromise in situations where they should go for the jugular. But no matter which camp current or former West Wing fans fall into, it’s impossible to dispute that those in the Bartlet administration were always ashamed of their fumbles, apologized for their misdeeds, and ultimately strived to do good.
The same cannot be said for those who got Fitzgerald Grant elected on Scandal. A lot happened in the roughly 12 years between the premieres of West Wing and Shonda Rhimes’ political drama. The nation was traumatized by hanging chads during the 2000 election, then devastated by the terror attacks on September 11, 2001. In the world of fictional TV, the unexpectedly timely 24 premiered less than two months after the Twin Towers fell, but the Fox drama focused on counterterrorism agent Jack Bauer rather than its revolving door of presidents; the George W. Bush presidency was mined for comedy on parodies like Comedy Central’s That’s My Bush; and Geena Davis’ Commander In Chief lasted only a season. It wasn’t until Scandal’s gladiators arrived in April 2012 that viewers truly latched on to another White House drama.
Partially based on the life of crisis manager and former Bush administration official Judy Smith, Scandal took a minute to figure out what it wanted to be. Its central figure, former White House Communications Director Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington), had left the Grant administration after a long affair with the president. When we first see her, she’s working with a group of misfit lawyers helping Washington insiders with their various crises. Similar to Rhimes’ Grey’s Anatomy, the show was procedural with a few serialized elements. But, as with The West Wing, the audience wanted more of the president, and in short time the ABC drama ditched the case-of-the-week format to focus more on the Olivia-Fitz relationship. By season two, the series had evolved into a thriller centered around the intrigue of the clandestine affair and the election rigging the core group surrounding Fitz had organized in an effort to get him into the Oval Office.
Much was made about Olivia and her gladiators wearing white hats and fighting for the underdog. But for all their grandstanding, Scandal’s heroes each succumbed to the dark side more than once over the show’s seven seasons. “I’m the good guy. The law is on my side. I am the law. The law is me. I work for justice. I uphold the Constitution of these United States. I am a knight for the people. I wear the white hat,” Assistant U.S. Attorney David Rosen (West Wing alum Josh Molina) tells Olivia in Scandal’s second episode. “And you, Olivia Carolyn Pope, you are a pain in my ass. I had a search warrant for that house, but by the time I got to use it, there was nothing there, because your people took whatever there was to find.” Even that early on in the series, it was clear Olivia would do whatever to takes to win. But the covert government agencies, assassinations, and affairs didn’t keep most of Scandal’s evildoers from possessing one redeeming character trait: a conscience. The network drama was ultimately a story of redemption as much as it was of corruption—though we sure did like the corruption so much more.
Midway through Scandal’s second season (fast-tracked and supersized thanks to the show’s popularity), Netflix entered the original-programming game with a political thriller where winning is all that matters and redemption is decidedly for suckers. Even the way House Of Cards came to land on the streaming platform was calculated: When presented with David Fincher and Kevin Spacey’s adaptation of a BBC miniseries based on Michael Dobbs’ novel of the same name, chief content officer Ted Sarandos looked to his company’s user data to determine that the director and star were a winning combination. It was all about guaranteed success, which is exactly what Spacey’s conniving Frank Underwood aims for on his cutthroat path from congressman to president.
The 1990 BBC version of House Of Cards has been credited with helping usher in the era of the antihero that gave us Tony Soprano, Walter White, Dexter Morgan, and even Olivia Pope. Almost 23 years later, fans of the Netflix version rooted for—and perhaps even admired—Frank and his wife, Claire (Robin Wright), as they turned on their entire circle, including each other. Frank was occasionally haunted by his murderous deeds, but was never apologetic. In fact, viewers came to realize that any House Of Cards character that showed even a shadow of a conscience was not long for that world. All is fair in hate and war. The Underwoods divided everyone around them, pulling the strings from a safe distance above the fray, and selling out their enemies and allies alike as they rode the waves of chaos all the way to the highest office in the land. (Though, unlike our actual president, Spacey’s real-life sexual harassment and assault allegations effectively removed Frank Underwood from the spotlight.)
If shows like The West Wing—which Sorkin has described as “a valentine to public service”—had continued to dominate in the ratings for at least a decade more, would we be living in a world that strives to be better for all rather than one that values power and fame at any cost? Instead, The Bachelor usurped The West Wing as Wednesday night’s top series in 2002, and two years later “You’re fired!” became a national catchphrase. While decades of evidence prove that Trump has always valued himself over the greater good, he’s also been conditioned by the tabloids and on The Apprentice to think that scandal sells. Case in point: This is the man who reportedly orchestrated his full-throated defense of a Saudi prince accused of ordering the killing an American journalist in order to distract the public after it was discovered that his daughter Ivanka was using her personal email account to conduct government business. For Trump, the only way to win in life—and, maybe more importantly to him, in the ratings—is to continue one-up the wrongdoings or questionable actions, the actual ramifications be damned.
Our current political reality is obviously more complicated than any one component of American culture, but it’s clear that our popular art and popular sentiment are closely intertwined—and have become more cynical over the past two decades. If The West Wing was what wide-eyed optimists wanted the White House to be, House Of Cards portrayed the jaded reality envisioned by those who lament the rampant corruption in Washington. Trump has been on a parallel path, taking his cues from far-right cable news pundits and network ratings, plumbing depths of depravity that should only exist in the bleakest political dramas. The not-so-funny thing is, as we’ve come to see in the past few years, our political reality is actually most like Veep.