Why does the Smithsonian have objects from a fake presidency on "The West Wing?"
As the fanfare leading up to the 2017 inauguration swirls around the Smithsonian and Washington, D.C., at large, I cannot help but think about watching events such as these portrayed on television and in movies. Depictions of the presidency and the White House in popular culture are strong influences on the way Americans imagine their government. Such scenes also reflect the views of Americans across time. While The West Wing portrayed Washington, D.C., as a complicated but generally impactful place to work, other elements of popular culture depict a very different White House. In the film Air Force One the president is a heroic action hero. In television's Scandal, President Fitzgerald "Fitz" Grant is humanized and often conflicted when faced with personal decisions. And President Selina Meyer on HBO’s Veep is depicted as a bumbling narcissist. Because of the influence of television and film on American life (and vice versa), it is important for the Smithsonian to collect objects representing television and movie presidents alongside real American presidential objects (such as those in the exhibition The American Presidency: A Glorious Burden.)
Working in the museum's Division of Culture and the Arts, it feels like my work follows me everywhere. Recently, on my commute to work one morning, I was listening to The West Wing Weekly. The podcast discusses every episode of the television show The West Wing. While discussing the Christmas decorations in "Noël" (Season 2, Episode 10), Ellen Totleben, set decorator on The West Wing, mentioned the fishbowl that sits on the desk of Press Secretary C. J. Cregg. Joshua Malina, one of the podcast’s hosts as well as an actor on The West Wing, commented that there should be a fish tank at the Smithsonian with all of the pieces from the goldfish bowl. Well, there is! (Sort of.)
In 2000 Aaron Sorkin, creator and executive producer of The West Wing, donated several objects from the hit show to the museum—including Gail's fishbowl. Gail, the goldfish given to C. J. Cregg by White House reporter Danny Concannon, lived in a fishbowl on Cregg's desk in the White House. In every episode, Gail's fishbowl was subtly decorated to reflect a plot storyline. In episode 10 of the first season, "In Excelsis Deo," there is a tiny Christmas tree inside the fishbowl, as well as an artificial poinsettia plant on top of the bowl. These decorations, along with the fishbowl and its white gravel, are in the Entertainment Collection in the Division of Culture and the Arts. (Gail the goldfish did not make the journey to the museum.)
While The West Wing was successful with television viewers when it aired from 1999 to 2006, I did not actually watch the show until I moved to Washington, D.C., three years ago. Several friends suggested it was a fun show to watch while living and working in the place it depicted. For those of you who have yet to watch the series, The West Wing follows (fictional) President Josiah "Jed" Bartlet and his staff in the West Wing of the White House through the legislative and political issues across Bartlet's (spoilers) two terms in office. While the show went off the air over a decade ago, it does not feel dated (with the exception of giant cell phones, pagers, and a fledgling Internet) due to its coverage of political issues still in the news today, such as terrorism, trade negotiations, and LGBTQ rights.
If you are missing the constant news coverage from last year's election and need your political fix, television and film are great ways to immerse yourself in different fictional versions of the White House. The West Wing is one viewing option, among many, that you can use to surround yourself with depictions of Washington, D.C. And make sure to keep an eye out for Gail and the ever-changing fishbowl decorations! While not every fishbowl decoration is here at the Smithsonian, we are happy to have this one as a representation of the many presidential depictions in American popular culture.
Hanna BredenbeckCorp is a project assistant in the Division of Culture and the Arts.