The script Obama needs to bring back to the West Wing


Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin shares a scene of Barack Obama seeking the counsel of a fictional former Democratic president known for fighting tough in debates

AFTER THE debate, I was talking to Aaron Sorkin, who was a little down. Or, as he put it, “nonverbal, shouting incoherently at a squirrel, angrier than when the Jets lost to the 49ers last Sunday without ever really being on the field”.

He was mollified when he learned that President Barack Obama, realising things were dire, privately sought the counsel of a former Democratic president known for throwing down in debates. I asked if he knew how the conversation between the two presidents had gone and, as it happened, he did. This is his account.

The lights from the presidential motorcade illuminate a New Hampshire farmhouse at night in the sprawling New England landscape.

JED BARTLET steps out on to his porch as the motorcade slows to a stop.

Bartlet: (calling out) Don’t even get out of the car!

Barack Obama:(opening the door of his limo) Five minutes, that’s all I want.

Bartlet: Were you sleepy?

Obama: Jed–

Bartlet: Was that the problem? Had you just taken allergy medication? General anaesthesia?

Obama: I had an off night.

Bartlet: What makes you say that? The fact that the Cheesecake Factory is preparing an ad campaign boasting that it served Romney his pre-debate meal? Law school graduates all over America are preparing to take the bar exam by going to the freakin’ Cheesecake Factory!

Obama: (following Bartlet inside) I can understand why you’re upset, Jed.

Bartlet: Did your staff let you know the debate was gonna be on television?

Obama: (looking in the other room) Is that Jeff Daniels?

Bartlet: That’s Will McAvoy, he just looks like Jeff Daniels.

Obama: Why’s he got Jim Lehrer in a hammer lock?

Bartlet: That’s called an Apache Persuasion Hold. McAvoy thinks it’s the responsibility of the moderator to expose – what are they called? – lies.

Will: (shouting) Did Obama remove the work requirement from Welfare-to-Work?!

Lehrer: No!

Will: And you didn’t want to ask Romney about that because? It would’ve been impolite?!

Bartlet: Let’s go in another room, Mr President. You want a cigarette?

Obama: I stopped smoking.

Bartlet: Start again. (leading the way into his study) I’m a father of daughters, you’re a father of daughters. It looked to me like right before you went on stage, Sasha told you she likes a boy in her class who has a tattoo.

Obama: That’s not what hap–

Bartlet: Here’s what you do. You invite the boy over for dinner, you have a couple of fellas from your detail brush their suit coats back so the lad can see the Magnums – problem solved. You have what every father of a daughter dreams of – an army and a good dog.

Obama: The girls are fine, that wasn’t the problem. In the debate prep we–

Bartlet: Whoa . . . there was prep?

Obama: (shouting) Enough! (taking a cigarette and lighting it) I appreciate that the view’s pretty good from the cheap seats. Al Gore chalked up my debate performance to the altitude. He debated at sea level – what was his excuse?

Bartlet: They told you to make sure you didn’t seem condescending, right? They told you, “First, do no harm,” and in your case that means don’t appear condescending, and you bought it. Because for the American right, condescension is the worst crime you can commit.

Obama: What’s your suggestion?

Bartlet: Appear condescending. Now, it comes naturally to me–

Obama: I know.

Bartlet: It’s a gift, but I’m likeable and you’re likeable enough. Thirty straight months of job growth – blown off. General Motors showing record profits – unmentioned. “Governor, would you still let Detroit go bankrupt as you urged us to do four years ago?” – unasked. (Shouting) I’m talkin’ to you, too, Lehrer!

Will: (in the other room) I got him, sir!

Bartlet: All right! (back to Obama) And that was quite a display of hard-nosed fiscal conservatism when he slashed one one-hundredth of 1 per cent from the federal budget by cancelling Sesame Street and Downton Abbey. I think we’re halfway home. Mr President, your prep for the next debate need not consist of anything more than learning to pronounce three words: “Governor, you’re lying.” Let’s replay some of Wednesday night’s more jaw-dropping visits to the Land Where Facts Go to Die. “I don’t have a $5 trillion tax cut. I don’t have a tax cut of a scale you’re talking about.”

Obama: The Tax Policy Centre analysis of your proposal for a 20 per cent across-the-board tax cut in all federal income tax rates, eliminating the Alternative Minimum Tax, the estate tax and other reductions, says it would be a $5 trillion tax cut.

Bartlet: In other words . . .

Obama: You’re lying, governor.

Bartlet: “I saw a study that came out today that said you’re going to raise taxes by $3,000 to $4,000 on middle-income families.”

Obama: The American Enterprise Institute found my budget actually would reduce the share of taxes that each taxpayer pays to service the debt by $1,289.89 for taxpayers earning in the $100,000 to $200,000 range.

Bartlet: Which is another way of saying . . .

Obama: You’re lying, governor.

Bartlet: “I want to take that $716 billion you’ve cut and put it back into Medicare.”

Obama: The $716 billion I’ve cut is from the providers, not the beneficiaries. I think that’s a better idea than cutting the exact same $716 billion and replacing it with a gift certificate, which is what’s contained in the plan that’s named for your running mate.

Bartlet: “Pre-existing conditions are covered under my plan.”

Obama: Not unless you’ve come up with a new plan since this afternoon.

Bartlet: “You doubled the deficit.”

Obama: When I took office in 2009, the deficit was 1.4 trillion. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the deficit for 2012 will be 1.1 trillion.

Bartlet: “All of the increase in natural gas has happened on private land, not on government land. On government land, your administration has cut the number of permits in half.”

Obama: Maybe your difficulty is with the words “half” and “double.” Oil production on federal land is higher, not lower. And the oil and gas industry are currently sitting on 7,000 approved permits to drill on government land that they’ve not yet begun developing.

Bartlet: “I think about half the green firms you’ve invested in have gone out of business.”

Obama: Yeah, your problem’s definitely with the word “half”. As of this moment there have been 26 recipients of loan guarantees – 23 of which are very much in business. What was Bain’s bankruptcy record again?

Bartlet: You picked a bad night to have a bad night, that’s all. You’ve got two more chances to change the scoreboard. Make Romney your cabana boy in New York.

Obama: Got it.

Bartlet: (taking the cigarette from Obama and stubbing it out) These things’ll kill you. Pull McAvoy off Lehrer on your way out.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection


Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.