Contents | March 2001
In This Issue (Contributors)
More on politics from The
"The Feel-Good Presidency"
The pseudo-politics of The West Wing. By Chris Lehmann
Do you recognize the Clinton West Wing in The West Wing?
White House speechwriter, 1997-2000.
White House Director of Production, 1993-1997.
Jonathan M. Orszag
White House economic policy adviser, 1996-1999.
Rica Rodman Orszag
White House Press Office aide, 1993-1997.
The Atlantic Monthly | Web-Only Sidebar | March 2001
Do you recognize the Clinton West Wing
in The West Wing?
JONATHAN M. ORSZAG: An exasperated President Truman once remarked
that he wanted a one-handed economist—that is, an adviser who
couldn't say "on the one hand this and on the other hand that." I'm
a two-handed economist, and thus my answer to the question is not
simple. On the one hand, the personalities and the characters on
The West Wing have little or no relationship to the Clinton
West Wing. On the other hand, the issues discussed on The West
Wing are taken directly from the experiences of the Clinton White
Unlike the movies American President or Primary Colors,
which included characters based on real-life counterparts (for
example, in American President, Michael J. Fox's character was
based on George Stephanopoulos, and in Primary Colors, John
Travolta and Billy Bob Thornton played characters based on President
Clinton and political strategist James Carville, respectively),
The West Wing includes no Clinton Administration-based
On the surface President Clinton and President Bartlet
have little in common. President Clinton came to the White House
from Arkansas, while President Bartlet moved from New Hampshire.
President Clinton was trained as a lawyer; President Bartlet was
trained as an economist (which makes me partial to the show).
President Clinton is big—he's six-foot-two and has a
personality to match; President Bartlet is neither big physically nor
larger than life. (President Bartlet and President Clinton do share
several characteristics, though: they both enjoy wearing college
sweatshirts and blue jeans, both gain two inches of height from their
hair, and both have encyclopedic memories.)
In addition, The West Wing's deputy chief of staff, Josh
Lyman, is not like any deputy chief of staff I knew at the White
House. He is not a hall monitor like Evelyn Lieberman. He is not
profane like Harold Ickes. He is not a Rhodes Scholar like Sylvia
Mathews. And he is not "all business" like Erskine Bowles.
Similarly, I do not recognize any Clinton adviser in Deputy
Communications Director Sam Seaborn. Some have suggested that
Seaborn is loosely based on George Stephanopoulos. But I think such
a comparison is tenuous.
While the personalities are different, the substantive issues
confronting the West Wing characters are nearly identical to
the ones confronted by the Clinton White House. In the past two
years, the show has covered topics such as statistical sampling and
the decennial census; private school vouchers; hiring a controversial
assistant attorney general for civil rights; hiring a Republican
staffer; the rescue of an American pilot shot down over a hostile
foreign country; a congressional investigation of substance abuse
among the White House staff; deciding whether the President should
implement a national missile-defense system; and debating whether to
move the press briefing room from the West Wing. These plots should
seem very familiar, since President Clinton and the real West
Wing had to deal with precisely the same issues.
To be sure, I like The West Wing. It is a great show, and I
enjoy watching it. But I enjoy it because it is not like the
Clinton West Wing. In my opinion, it is far enough from reality to
be enjoyable as fiction. If it were any closer to the true West
Wing, I fear that we would spend more time dissecting its
inaccuracies than watching it for its entertainment value.
Jonathan Orszag is the Managing
Director of Sebago Associates, Inc., an economic consulting firm. He
served for three years as an economic policy adviser on President
Clinton's National Economic Council.
Copyright © 2001 by The Atlantic
Monthly Group. All rights reserved.