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More on politics from The Atlantic Monthly.

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"The Feel-Good Presidency" (March 2001)
The pseudo-politics of The West Wing. By Chris Lehmann

Web-Only Sidebars:

Do you recognize the Clinton West Wing in The West Wing?

Lowell Weiss
White House speechwriter, 1997-2000.

Joshua King
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 House.

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 characters.

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.

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