Contents | March 2001

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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?

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 presidency.

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 said.

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.

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