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?
RICA RODMAN ORSZAG: The West Wing is good drama. But, believe
it or not, working in the Clinton West Wing was more intense and all-consuming than The West Wing portrays. President Clinton
created this atmosphere. He worked "until the last hour of his last
day in office," and his work ethic and long hours led to a strong
sense of camaraderie among his staff.
For many staffers, the White House became their home away from home
and their fellow staffers became extended family members. One sign of
the tight-knit atmosphere of the Clinton West Wing is the number of
White House couples who were married over the past eight years.
President Clinton takes great pride in the fact that dozens of
Administration staffers met their spouses working for him. I met my
husband at the White House, and some of our closest friends met their
spouses while working there, too.
The West Wing doesn't do justice to the interpersonal
relationships of the real White House. The show has, of course,
touched on characters' personal experiences in some episodes (for
example, when the chief of staff's wife leaves him, and the coming
together of the staff after the President is shot). But in most of
the episodes over the past two seasons, the West Wing
characters act simply as co-workers who (mostly) like each other, and
the personal connections among staff inside and outside of the work
environment are usually ignored.
Another thing The West Wing has missed is the relationship
between the President and the public. While President Clinton's
intimacy with the public was a key component of his time in office,
President Bartlet's interaction with the public is almost never
shown. President Clinton loves people. He tried to shake every hand
at each event. He often surprised visitors waiting outside the White
House gate by greeting them, and on one occasion the President even
invited some of these visitors into the Rose Garden to listen to his
radio address. The West Wing rarely shows this aspect of the
The relationships between the staff and the President also differ
greatly. In the real White House, the President is treated with
great—sometimes even reverential—respect by the staff.
In Aaron Sorkin's White House, the relationship is more casual;
staffers treat President Bartlet like a mere co-worker. (One
exception to this point: Dulé Hill, who plays the President's personal
aide, accurately portrays the typical young, obliging White House
staffer.) Part of this is by design: Aaron Sorkin does not want Martin Sheen to be the center of attention. As a result, President Bartlet is just another
character. President Clinton, on the other hand, changes the
molecules in the air when he walks into a room, as James Carville has
When it comes to the relationship between the White House staff and
the press, however, The West Wing does bear a strong
resemblance to the Clinton West Wing. On TV, The West Wing's
press secretary (CJ) flirts with Danny, a journalist for a major
newspaper. In real life, my former boss, White House Press Secretary
Dee Dee Myers, flirted with (and then married) New York Times
White House correspondent Todd Purdum. It is not surprising that
this is one area where art imitates life; Dee Dee is a consultant to
The West Wing.
One reason I watch The West Wing every week is the show's
positive portrayal of government service. Nearly everyone I met
during my four years in government was a hard-working public servant.
On this issue, The West Wing gives an accurate sense of what I
saw: people working to leave the world a better place.
Rica Rodman Orszag served in the
White House Press Office from 1993 to 1997.
Copyright © 2001 by The Atlantic
Monthly Group. All rights reserved.