March 01, 2000
The Real White House
Can a smart TV show inspire interest in public life in ways that real politics � brought to us by the real press corps � can�t? Absolutely. NBC�s The West Wing presents a truer, more human picture of the people behind the issues than most of today�s White House journalists.
by MATTHEW MILLER
Bill Clinton looks at the page and raises his pen. It's mid-January in the capital, and the State of the Union address is just days away. In the Oval Office, the president and his top aides pore over the latest draft. President Clinton is deeply engaged. This will be his last State of the Union, and maybe the most important. It has been a tortuous journey. The president, who once sought universal health care, soon found himself declaring that "the era of big government is over." Then came scandal and impeachment. But the president has survived and craves this chance to define his tenure. He knows the pundits ridicule him for how long he rambles on, daring to talk to the nation for a full hour unfiltered by the press. Screw 'em, he thinks. The people love it. The president scribbles in the margins, dictates new riffs for his speechwriters, and sends them back to work.
Three thousand miles away (and two months earlier), in a non-descript building on the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank, Aaron Sorkin, 38, creator, chief writer, and executive producer of the new NBC series The West Wing, takes a drag on a Merit and stares at his computer screen. The State of the Union address is days away. President Josiah Bartlet, a Democrat, plans to announce that "the era of big government is over." Toby Ziegler, his liberal communications director, wants the phrase killed; it's a betrayal of all that the party of FDR has championed for 50 years. The president has heard the beef before; even a retiring liberal Supreme Court justice called him a spineless sellout to his face. But Bartlet has something else on his mind. He collapsed in front of aides while rehearsing the speech, no longer able to conceal the illness he had masked during the campaign. One way or another, his health and his political philosophy -- not to mention a looming war between India and Pakistan -- must be cleared up by act 4. Sorkin stubs out his cigarette and starts typing.
Two White Houses. One real, one imagined. Bill Clinton gets a clean shot at an audience this big (about 40 million) only one night a year. Sorkin tells his White House story on his terms to 13 million people every Wednesday at 9. It's a prerogative the president can only envy.
Much like their real-world counterparts, NBC's White House staffers push legislation, bomb terrorists, and appoint judges. They count votes and twist arms. They cut deals, just like the pros.
But behind the fictional headlines are "real" people. The president (played by Martin Sheen) is insecure about deploying the military and afraid his daughter might be kidnapped. His chief of staff, a recovering alcoholic whose wife has left him because he's never home, fears he'll hurt the president when political foes leak word of his treatment for substance abuse. The deputy chief of staff frets that a big White House "win" on gun control feels like a loss because the bill is so timid that it's like "fighting the war on tobacco by banning certain-color matchbook covers." Another aide vomits after learning that the advice she gave the president in a hostage crisis has left an FBI negotiator dying. Everyone's mad at the vice-president. Nearly everyone needs a lawyer. And senior aide Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe) is smitten with a high-priced call girl who's "working" her way through law school.
Not your average White House, perhaps -- but then, how would we know? Yes, the Year of Monica put one seamy sliver of presidential life under a microscope, but that took subpoena power and a suspension of national sanity. Many reporters and media-watchers say that without the scent of scandal, the Washington press rarely tries to offer a rounded, human portrait of our leaders' character or motives. Sometimes this is out of respect for officials' privacy; more often, it's from lack of interest or access. The inside peeks we do get tend to come via betrayal, when a Dick Morris or a George Stephanopoulos cashes in and trashes the boss with a book that also offers insights into White House life. Now, however, Sorkin, along with fellow executive producers John Wells (of NBC's ER) and Thomas Schlamme (who, with Sorkin, also produces ABC's Sports Night), is wagering that the people and issues that collide backstage at the White House can be as gripping as the palace intrigues that inspired dramatists from Sophocles to Shakespeare.
So far, viewers seem to agree. Since its launch in September, The West Wing has ranked consistently among the 20 to 30 top-rated shows, drawing the educated, affluent audience advertisers prize. A poll of 54 critics conducted by Electronic Media magazine in November tapped The West Wing as the best show on television.
Yet New York Times chief TV critic Caryn James finds it "wildly uneven," shifting from nuanced situations to "scenes of Martin Sheen making the right moral decision with the music swelling in the background." Larry Hancock, NBC's vice-president of current prime-time series, says audience research shows that viewers find the complex plots and jargon-heavy political topics difficult to follow but worth the effort. "It's kind of a good, solid single," says producer Wells, whose ER has been one of television's few out-of-the-box home runs in recent years. "We can build on that over the next year."
Washingtonians, meanwhile, are divided. Republicans chafe at what they see as Hollywood's liberal bias. "There's always an ideological hit there someplace," says James Pinkerton, a columnist and veteran of the Bush and Reagan White Houses. White House aides gripe that The West Wing doesn't look like the real thing: The halls are too big, the offices too comfy. The place feels overpopulated and overcaffeinated. "Who were all those good-looking people walking around with files under their arms?" White House press secretary Joe Lockhart quipped in the Los Angeles Times after the show's premiere. But his predecessor swears by it. "It's the only show on television that I actually watch," says Michael McCurry, calling it the first series in a long while that "has treated those who work in politics...as human beings." Matthew Cooper, deputy Washington bureau chief for Time and former White House correspondent for U.S. News & World Report and The New Republic, adds, "In that sense, it may be more truthful than [political] reporting."
Many of the capital's top columnists and reporters say they haven't tuned in (or have caught only the well-publicized pilot) -- a group that includes James Bennett of The New York Times; David Broder, E.J. Dionne Jr., and John Harris of The Washington Post; Bill Kristol of The Weekly Standard; David Gergen of U.S. News & World Report; Ronald Brownstein of the Los Angeles Times; and Chris Matthews of CNBC.
That's a shame, because these opinion-shapers are missing what a number of journalists, former White House aides, and media analysts say may be a promising antidote for today's widespread disenchantment with politics. Can a smart TV show renew interest in public life in ways that real politics brought to us by the real press corps can't? The show's producers insist they're not trying to do anything so grandiose. That doesn't mean they won't pull it off. And what's already certain is that although the show indeed has a liberal bias on issues, it presents a truer, more human picture of the people behind the headlines than most of today's Washington journalists.
It started, like so many things in Hollywood, over lunch. In 1997, Aaron Sorkin was a 36-year-old screenwriter with two hits under his belt. He'd written A Few Good Men for Broadway at 28, then adapted it for the big screen. The American President followed in 1995. Sorkin's agent, eager for him to try his hand at TV, thought he and John Wells should get acquainted. Wells, 43, was the driving force behind ER. In Hollywood's pecking order, a show runner like Wells outranked a screenwriter like Sorkin. As Sorkin sat down at Pinot Bistro, a French restaurant on Ventura Boulevard, he suddenly felt panicked. Wells was a busy man. He wants to hear ideas, Sorkin thought. Sorkin hadn't prepared any. But a friend had put a bug in Sorkin's ear a while back. You've got hundreds of unused ideas left over from The American President, he'd said. Couldn't that be the start of a TV series? Sorkin hadn't done anything but sleep on the notion. Now, so as not to embarrass himself or waste Wells's time, he tossed it out.
"Senior staffers in the White House," Sorkin said. That was the extent of the pitch. No plots for the first few episodes, customary in such meetings. No sketch of the characters and how they might evolve.
Instead, Sorkin told Wells how impressed and inspired he'd been while visiting the White House to research The American President. He'd spent time with George Stephanopoulos, press secretary Dee Dee Myers, and others. It seemed amazing that the people running the country were his age! He and Wells, both Democrats, agreed that respect for public service had been lost in recent years, replaced by the caricature that people who worked in politics were only after power. Sorkin described talented folks who worked out of cubicles for a fraction of what they could earn on Wall Street, all for the chance to make a difference. Their passion was palpable. The stakes couldn't be higher. And their workplace, the West Wing, was glamorous and dramatic.
Wells was intrigued. He also knew it would be a tough sell. Politics was held in such low esteem, network executives believed, that it was tough to create characters with whom viewers would want to spend time. Moreover, no matter how you came down on political issues, you risked turning off half your audience.
Wells and Sorkin pitched the idea to NBC. Without much enthusiasm, the network sent Sorkin off to write a pilot. He delivered the script that Christmas. The timing couldn't have been worse. A few weeks later Kenneth Starr's prosecutors confronted Monica Lewinsky at The Ritz-Carlton Hotel. Wells and Sorkin met with NBC executives to discuss the show's fate days after President Clinton wagged his finger and told the nation, "I did not have sexual relations with that woman." If politics was poison before, it was radioactive now. NBC said no.
By this time, however, Wells had committed to the concept. After all, network types had once told him physicians were seen as so self-serving that heroic doctors like ER's could never work. Wells's development deal with NBC gave him the right to shop the idea elsewhere if the network didn't bite. Several people were interested. After tussling right up to Wells's deadline, NBC grudgingly agreed to pick it up. But it was too late to shoot a pilot for the current season, so Sorkin went to work launching Sports Night, a half-hour comedy he'd pitched to ABC. Six months later Wells called NBC. "We're ready to make it," he said.
Make what? said the suits. You're not really gonna make us make that, are you?
But NBC's top management had been shuffled in the interim. Scott Sassa, a cable wunderkind from Turner Broadcasting System, Inc., was NBC's new West Coast president. "Sassa...was new enough to the network television business," says Wells, "that he hadn't been fully indoctrinated into the gospel of 'Washington, D.C., doesn't work.'" Sassa put The West Wing on the schedule.
The delay was a blessing for Sorkin, since it freed him to focus exclusively on the first season of Sports Night. Now the screenwriter who once frittered away days in search of his muse when working on feature films would learn what it was like to have two TV scripts due each week.
Sorkin enters the drab conference room in The West Wing's writers' offices at Warner Bros. and looks around the table. The drill is the same most weeks. The previous week's 70-page script has been put to bed. The next one is due in eight days. Sorkin needs ideas. He's in his usual uniform: jeans, Converse sneakers, sweatshirt, tortoiseshell glasses. He's also sporting his "casual on the outside but churning on the inside" intensity. "What ideas do we have?" he asks. "What do we want to do?"
Sorkin's brain trust has assembled. There's Patrick Caddell, Jimmy Carter's pollster and strategist, now 49 and a little wild-eyed, fed up with real-world politics and passionate about The West Wing's chance to do better than Washington. "This is better than going to a psychiatrist," he says. Near him sits Lawrence O'Donnell, 46, a onetime screenwriter who was Daniel Patrick Moynihan's right hand on the Senate Finance Committee before becoming a regular MSNBC pundit. Dee Dee Myers, 38, jumped at the consulting gig Sorkin offered because the characters felt like people she knew in politics. "They're human, they make mistakes, they make misjudgments," she says, "but they're there struggling day in and day out to try to get it right." Sorkin's politicos are all Democrats. He has a few playwrights on staff, too.
One-hour television dramas typically have a "bible," a detailed plan of where the story lines and major characters are headed through the season. Not The West Wing. "This show resides in the head of Aaron Sorkin," says O'Donnell. For example, Sorkin originally thought the president would be a minor, somewhat mysterious character and that the action would center on his staff. But the notion that you'd glimpse only the back of the president's head or watch him go around a corner felt hokey, Sorkin decided. (It helped when Martin Sheen loved shooting the pilot and wanted to raise his commitment from 4 episodes to all 22 in the first season.) Similarly, Sorkin decided that he wanted to make the First Lady, played by Stockard Channing, a doctor while he was writing the episode when the president falls ill, because it fit his plot needs and illuminated her character.
Most episodes feature three or four subplots that Sorkin stitches together into a fast-paced narrative. The staff's goal is to stay ahead of Sorkin, so when he comes up for air he has either a staff script to consider or ideas for episodes and the political research he'll need to write them. For some subplots, Sorkin can cook up the next installment of one of the show's running riffs: The press secretary, C.J. (Allison Janney), for example, has a flirtation going with a White House reporter; Sam Seaborn and the chief of staff's daughter look like a budding romance. But most stories are born in debates.
"If I can put two people in a room who disagree about something, anything, the time of day," Sorkin explains, "I can probably get a good scene out of it. The stronger the arguments on either side, the more compelling, the more interesting they are, the better."
"The Short List," a November episode on a Supreme Court nomination, shows how The West Wing's brew of character, argument, and plot comes together in Sorkin's brain, filtered through the craft of drama, which he mastered as a fine arts undergrad at Syracuse University and has honed in years of storytelling. "I knew that I wanted the...story to start with 'Fantastic, everything's great, we got Mario Cuomo,'" Sorkin recalls. "And to end with 'It's a whole different guy.'
"In other words," Sorkin continues, "we're gonna have to discover a problem with our home-run candidate. I didn't want it to be scandalous at all. I didn't want it to be a nanny. I didn't want it to be sex like with Clarence Thomas. I didn't want this guy to have done anything wrong except that I was intrigued by [Robert] Bork and those who agree with Bork that the Constitution does not provide for a right of privacy, that the right simply doesn't exist. Not so much because of Bork's contention that Roe v. Wade was based on faulty legal thinking but more because I think privacy is huge."
Sorkin also knew he wanted the action to take place over just a couple of days. "The more you compress time, the more the heat goes up," he explains. "I was taught that you want to start your stories as close to the end as possible."
Sorkin continues, "I'll sit with Pat, Dee Dee, and Lawrence, and I'll say, 'Write me something about this; write me something about how that would work.'" O'Donnell supplied the r�sum� of the perfect candidate. Caddell researched the privacy arguments. Sorkin asked Myers for ideas on what might undo someone who seemed like the perfect candidate. She came back with the notion of an unsigned "note" (a long scholarly article) the candidate wrote as a young man on the Harvard Law Review that casts doubt on his commitment to privacy rights.
Sorkin had what he needed. "Once I have the dry argument," he says, "...I'll make it emotional or funny. I'll make it the difference between C-SPAN and watching television." In this case, the White House staff's discovery of the unsigned "note" sparks a crisis. How can the president appoint a justice who doesn't share his values? The climax is an Oval Office showdown on legal philosophy between the jurist, the president, and his top aides. Then President Bartlet goes with a second candidate, one he hadn't looked at seriously before. In this mix of passion, pressure, and serendipity, White House alumni say, Sorkin captures the feel of the run-up to a court appointment, shorn of a thousand undramatic details.
Sorkin (and the show's directors) turn to Myers for White House reality checks. The president and vice-president need to get into a fight before a Cabinet meeting: What might trigger it? The president collapses during a State of the Union rehearsal: What would happen next? (The press secretary's enduring instinct: Forget about the doctor; make sure no reporters are around.) Staff writer Paul Redford hands in a script on a state dinner. Sorkin wants to weave in subplots on a strike, a hostage, and a hurricane, all of which must be resolved by dessert.
Then there's laughter, which trumps everything. "Can I be funny for a half a page before I get into something else?" is often Sorkin's criterion in picking topics. Obscure news clips stir the pot. A small town in Alabama wants to scrap all laws except the Ten Commandments -- how are they going to enforce the "covet thy neighbor's wife" part? A small item appears about an open ambassadorship to the Federated States of Micronesia. Maybe Sorkin's West Wing needs a man there, too -- if anyone can find it. "Why not?" Sorkin asks. "We need an episode next week."
Some jokes, however, are still too hot to touch. For all of Sorkin's pronouncements that there won't be any "Monica" characters on the show, he has toyed with the idea of slipping in, out of nowhere and with zero fanfare, this scene:
A young female intern delivers some paperwork to the president and makes an adolescent sexual advance.
Bartlet: What did you say?
Intern: I said --
Bartlet: Young lady, you're addressing the president of the United States, and you're doing it in the Oval Office. This isn't Fort Lauderdale, and you're not on spring break. Leave this room right now and don't ever come back.
"That's that," Sorkin says. "And we never discuss it again." So far he hasn't gone with it.
Other plots come straight from life. Sorkin had a drink with Stephanopoulos at the Four Seasons Hotel near Georgetown while researching The American President. The aide pulled what looked like a bus pass from his wallet. The card contained instructions as to where George would be evacuated to help the president run the nation in the event of nuclear war. On The West Wing, Josh Lyman, the deputy chief of staff, becomes unnerved by his card, and guilt-stricken when he learns his colleagues aren't slated to be saved. The real fun came off camera. "Dee Dee actually came to me and said, 'You know, they don't have these cards,'" Sorkin recalls. Turns out they did, but that Myers didn't.
Myers's involvement can prompt the show to relive, and rewrite, history. Take an episode featuring an India-Pakistan conflict that aired January 5. One subplot turns on how the president and his top men keep C.J., the press secretary, in the dark about troop movements.
"This is coming from my life," Myers says. Her worst moment in the White House came after the assassination attempt on former President Bush in 1993. Myers told reporters one Friday that the FBI was still looking into whether Saddam Hussein was involved; President Clinton would decide what to do once he reviewed the FBI's report. It turns out President Clinton already had the report and had decided to respond by bombing Baghdad the next day. Myers was out of the loop. She came into work Saturday and put "a lid" on, slang for assuring the press there would be no more news coming out of the White House. An hour later, with U.S. missiles flying, she found herself paging reporters who were on their way to a Baltimore Orioles game, her credibility in tatters.
In The West Wing, C.J., similarly in the dark, gives reporters a flip answer about there being no troop movements at the India-Pakistan border. As the press soon learns, C.J. doesn't know what she's talking about. "I wanted to make her more angry," Myers says. "I wanted there to be some resolution, in order to preserve the strength of her character, where she calls 'the boys' on the rug." Instead, Leo McGarry, the chief of staff (played by John Spencer of L.A. Law), brushes C.J. off by saying, "Just tell them you spoke without being informed." "I ran back," Myers recalls, "and said [to Sorkin], this is like saying, 'I'm an idiot; you can't trust me.'"
Sorkin concedes that he could have allowed Myers to live a little more through C.J. "I dropped the ball," he laments, sorry not to have done Myers's story justice. But what could he do? He had another script to finish. He had to move on.
"Here we go...settle please...background...action." It's a gorgeous California day on the Warner Bros. lot. Mountains rise beyond the end of the street that houses the two stages where The West Wing is filmed. Outside, amid a general milling-about, crew members grab doughnuts and coffee under a tent. There's a weird feeling of caste among the cast: Anonymous "extras" drift aimlessly while stars like Rob Lowe and Martin Sheen hunker down in their trailers between scenes. Their personal assistants -- who, unlike real White House aides, almost always sign confidentiality agreements that make "kiss and tell" betrayals illegal -- ferry messages and run errands.
Once Sorkin turns in a script, the monthlong production cycle begins. The director (there's a new one for each episode) usually gets the script seven days before filming, but sometimes it arrives as late as the day before it's set to shoot. Along with Sorkin and Thomas Schlamme, an Emmy-winning director who is Sorkin's partner on both The West Wing and Sports Night, the director and cast do an informal "table read" of the script. Held at night on the set over a takeout dinner, these family-style sessions amount to lovefests for Sorkin, as actors laugh and rejoice at the lines they've been given.
Filming takes eight days, which often run beyond midnight. Then there's two weeks of postproduction for editing, music, sound effects, and other technical magic. Once the director delivers the episode, Schlamme, Sorkin, and Wells do a final tweak to make sure that what Schlamme calls the show's visual and performance tones remain consistent.
On this sunny afternoon in November, director Kevin Sullivan (How Stella Got Her Groove Back) looks impatient on the porch outside the Oval Office. He's waiting to shoot a scene in which the president and his aides discuss the troops Pakistan has moved to its border. "It's a big day," he says to an assistant. "It's a ten-page day. I'd like it if we were shooting instead of standing around."
Television production, like house construction, turns out to be a carnival of unplanned delays. The sound team has trouble suspending a mike in the right place. Rob Lowe and Richard Schiff (who plays communications director Toby Ziegler) can't figure out how to race down the portico toward the Oval without Lowe's brushing into a potted plant. The whole thing involves more people than you'd think. Besides 8 main actors and about 20 extras (who are grateful for the steady work, since the office is supposed to feel the same each week), there are 70 crew members on the set. Counting the production staff, about 230 people are on the list for West Wing Christmas gifts.
For all of the White House's nitpicking that the set isn't perfect, in person the place is exciting. The "Oval Office" is a damned good Oval Office. And the others, even if roomier than The West Wing's cramped warrens, are filled with fun touches that don't show on screen. Aping the cult of personality that every real White House falls prey to, Martin Sheen's face has been spliced into photos mounted everywhere. There's Sheen with Boris Yeltsin, Sheen perched between George Mitchell and Tom Foley, even Sheen delivering the State of the Union, with Newt Gingrich and Al Gore seated behind him. Personally inscribed "power photos" with Bartlet dot staffers' walls: "For Josh, my secret weapon," reads one. The chief of staff has a framed collection of campaign buttons. The bulletin board beside Sam Seaborn's desk sports a phone message from Dan Quayle: "Please call as soon as possible." On Sam's shelf is the complete staffer's indispensable Almanac of American Politics -- only Sam's is from 1980.
The clich� seems true: Acting is hard work. A scene taped earlier that will come to 10 seconds on TV took 15 takes and an hour to shoot. "Josh, I didn't expect you back so soon," asks Donna, Josh's secretary. "Did everything go okay?" "No, actually," Josh replies, "it didn't." Half the time they shoot again to perfect the performance; the rest because the picture or sound isn't quite right.
They're ready in the Oval Office. Sullivan steps out from behind the TV monitor where he directs the action, and he crisply leads Sheen, Lowe, Schiff, Spencer, and Bradley Whitford (Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman) through a rehearsal. They work out some tricky business concerning who stands where and who looks at whom as the actors close in around the president's desk. Sullivan at one point actually strikes that classic director's pose: one eye closed, head cocked, looking between his outstretched hands to imagine the frame. Someone yells "Mark!" and a woman runs in to tape spots on the floor that the actors need to hit. Another sneaks Schiff some "sides" -- tiny photocopies of the script -- so he can check his lines. During a pause Sheen asks Spencer which episode is airing that night: It's a Wednesday, after all, and The West Wing is on. Between actors and crew there are 21 people in the room, making it feel like Clinton's chaotic real-world Oval back in his early days.
Finally they shoot. The news out of Pakistan is bad. The Security Council is meeting. The CIA has photos showing 20,000 troops near the northern border.
The president, Leo, Toby, Josh, and Sam plot strategy in the Oval Office. With a sudden knock, C.J. sticks her head in. The men turn suddenly and fall silent, as if she's intruding. She asks the question. Leo hesitates. Sure, he says, go ahead, put a "lid" on. (You can just hear Dee Dee Myers screaming.) The president's men eye each other, realizing what has just happened. C.J. exits. The tension breaks. "I'll brief her tomorrow," Leo tells the president. He shrugs.
"Cut!" Sullivan says. "Print it."
"This show is not here for me or for any of us to teach you something," says Sorkin, sipping coffee in his office. "It's not meant to be good for you. We're not asking anyone to eat their vegetables." The chief reason, Sorkin insists, is that "I'm not qualified to teach you anything." His college degree was in musical theater, he says, laughing. He watches Inside Politics because of a crush on Judy Woodruff. He likes news for its drama. He's not politically sophisticated.
Though it's hard to believe, given his obvious gifts, Sorkin sees himself as the dumber son and brother of brainy lawyers. In Scarsdale, the affluent New York suburb where he was raised, Sorkin says, he was surrounded by kids who were much smarter and overachieving than he was. He was the drama club "goofball." "What I developed over the years was simply an ear for the sound of intelligence," he says. In retrospect, Sorkin adds, the show should be staying away from things like the India-Pakistan conflict, which was "scary" because he "was in way over my depth." The West Wing shouldn't be taking viewers to the brink of nuclear war, he reasons, "or our seams start to show."
Still, "there's a great opportunity...through the lives of these characters," says Myers, "to explain issues that are sometimes too complex or too obscure-feeling for the press to make interesting and accessible."
The most striking example may have been an episode Sorkin built largely around the census -- the government's official measurement of the U.S. population every ten years. To be sure, the count has a serious effect on how many representatives and federal grants a state receives. Still, it's the kind of issue that can put even dedicated policy wonks to sleep. To make his story work, Sorkin had to explain the stakes of a partisan debate over how the count is actually conducted. He did this through several scenes of stylish banter between Sam and C.J., who is clueless on the subject (see sidebar on page 94).
These scenes work, says Schlamme, precisely because they're not about teaching. "You're involved with the fact that Sam is the smarter one and C.J. has to be the student at this moment, so you're enjoying that, first and foremost," Schlamme explains. "From a directing point of view...[t]he essence of the scene is not about teaching us about the census; it's about how are these two people going to end up being closer to one another by the end of this episode. So if you start from that, then you can lay on...any dialogue you want and it's fascinating."
Sorkin then made the census plot turn on whether the White House could persuade one of three congressmen to change his vote on a census-related amendment to a spending bill. The rider barred the use of a more accurate "sampling" methodology that would have raised the number of minorities but seemed not to be allowed by the actual language in the Constitution mandating a census. One of the swing legislators, a black man, switches his vote after Toby reminds him in a meeting -- with a dramatic reading of the Consti-tution -- that the nation's founding charter counted a slave as less than a full person. It all feels as if Sorkin were saying, "Give me the most boring issue you can think of and I'll make a gripping drama out of it."
Sorkin stitches into that same episode a sequence of three rapid-fire hallway chats that captures the essence of the debate over what to do with the budget surplus -- return it to tax-payers or spend it on government programs -- better than a hundred dull editorials could:
Donna: What's wrong with me getting my money back?
Josh: You won't spend it right.
Donna: What do you mean?
Josh: Let's say your cut of the surplus is $700. I want to take your money, combine it with everyone else's money, and use it to pay down the debt and further endow Social Security. What do you want to do with it?
Donna: Buy a DVD player.
Donna: But my $700 is helping employ the people who manufacture and sell DVD players, not to mention the people who manufacture and sell DVDs. It's the natural evolution of a market economy.
Josh: The problem is that the DVD player you buy might be made in Japan.
Donna: I'll buy an American one.
Josh: We don't trust you.
Donna: Why not?
Josh: We're Democrats.
Donna: I want my money back.
Josh: Shouldn't have voted for us.
John Wells says he and Sorkin have been determined from the start not to talk down to the audience. "Conversation is actually written in such a way as to be true, complicated, and yet easy to understand," he says.
When it comes to its treatment of political issues, Sorkin and Wells insist The West Wing isn't a case of Hollywood lefties mounting a soapbox. It's a charge to which they're clearly sensitive, and with some reason. "He's a liberal who believes in liberals," says former Bush and Reagan domestic policy and political aide James Pinkerton of Sorkin, adding that the show's treatment of political issues invariably comes down to "Republicans bad, Democrats good." In one episode, The West Wing went so far as to caricature right-wing religious leaders as bigoted and slightly lunatic.
"Nothing goes into the show without a full pro and con," Wells counters. "Otherwise, it's just somebody preaching to the choir." The show has aired the conservative case against public television and hate-crime laws, for example. President Bartlet hawkishly favored massive retaliation against a much smaller terrorist strike. One issue on which Wells concedes the show hasn't been balanced is gun control. "I don't think any of us really believes in the other side of the argument very much," Wells says. The other side of the argument, of course, is the Second Amendment to the Constitution.
If Sorkin's politics are Democratic, they're not entirely predictable. A child of liberals, the 11-year-old Aaron got bopped over the head with his own McGovern placard when he showed up to tweak Nixon's motorcade as it swung through White Plains, New York. "There's a little part of me that has been trying to get back at that woman my entire life," he says. Yet Sorkin is also a big George Will fan. And he's planning to have Bartlet do a Malibu fund-raiser in a coming episode -- not only as a way to dig into campaign finance but to go against liberal type and have fun with dilettante starlets and their "causes."
In the end, a Democratic administration rules The West Wing, and the show is definitively left-leaning. But some observers argue that it's not what Sorkin's politics are but what his attitude isn't that represents the most intriguing, and potentially influential, aspect of The West Wing's success. Sorkin is not cynical. "Aaron starts from...an absolute love for these people [his characters]," says Schlamme.
"I'm not a journalist," Sorkin explains. "My obligation isn't to the truth...my obligation is to captivate you for however long I've asked for your attention." He's right, of course: There's plenty that's not factual in The West Wing. But Sorkin "captivates" viewers by making the human side of politics more real than life -- or at least more real than the picture we get from the news. For Sorkin, this is simply how he goes about his business. But the culture clash this humanizing instinct represents can't be overstated. By the seemingly innocuous act of portraying politicians with empathy, The West Wing has injected into the culture a subversive competitor to the reigning values of political journalism.
"It conveys a truth about the White House that we don't get from other sources," says Jay Rosen, chairman of the journalism department at New York University. When Sam Donaldson and his colleagues stand in front of the White House and give us their report, Rosen argues, they're engaged in two acts of persuasion. On the one hand, they want to convince us that they're giving us the "inside story"; on the other, that they haven't been "taken in" and don't buy the self-image of the White House staff. "What gets lost in that conflict," Rosen says, "is the humanity of the participants."
"There's an unwritten code among political reporters," says former Clinton spokesman Michael McCurry, "that if you write anything that is even semi-flattering or... empathetic that you're somehow or other 'in the tank,' and you're not living up to the true calling of the journalist." In a recent essay in The New York Times Magazine, reporter and author Michael Lewis lamented this "dehumanizing prism" in language that reads like a prospectus for The West Wing. "There is precious little written or said that would explain to someone who is not a politician why a person would become one," Lewis wrote. "Or what if feels like to be one." "This," he argues, "is just a huge void."
This void is felt strongly by The West Wing's stars, immersed in Sorkin's stories every day. The five actors who were interviewed for this piece said the process of doing the show had enlarged their empathy for public officials and the challenges they face. "You know, I'll read Maureen Dowd," grumbles Bradley Whitford, who plays Josh Lyman. He sounds angry. "The whole tone of it is deeply cynical, deeply, deeply cynical....I think that she's functioning as a performer."
"People go into this work [politics] because they have strong convictions," says Rosen. "The narrative from political journalism is that this melts instantly on contact with political reality. The truth is more complicated. It's interesting that it takes fiction to convey that fact."
Posted by MorganG at March 1, 2000 04:26 PM