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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?

JOSHUA KING: The Clinton West Wing is woven into its television counterpart every week. Sometimes The West Wing borrows broad dramatic themes, but often it sneaks away with a long-forgotten tidbit. I know how White House reality and fantasy intertwine. For five years, I staged many of President Clinton's public events, leaving in late 1997 to produce a TV pilot called "West Wing" for Lifetime Television. A victim of bad timing (it was shot in Toronto at the height of the Lewinsky scandal), our show never got on the air, but it made me a never-miss-an-episode fan of Aaron Sorkin's version.

Thanks to the reminiscences of series adviser Dee Dee Myers and her long Rolodex of Clinton veterans who once wore the coveted "blue pass"—the plastic amulet that permits unfettered access to the West Wing—Sorkin's show regularly dramatizes tiny slices of reality from the past eight years in the White House.

Take the January 10 episode ("The Leadership Breakfast"). The script bulged with real-life plot points, from a fire in the White House to an aborted eviction of the press corps from their perch above FDR's boarded-up indoor swimming pool. Both really happened. In the show's first scene, the staff frets over the seating chart for an upcoming event. Will strict protocol reign, or will a breach be allowed for a guest's special need? Applying Baryshnikov's precision to simple musical chairs was a political ballet we danced every day of the week.

President Clinton, like President Bartlet, could not have cared less about such things. Put him in his seat, give him his talking points, and let him go to work. What Clinton and Bartlet both go to extremes to ensure, however, is that hometown delicacies make it on the menu. In "The Leadership Breakfast," Granite State-native Bartlet whines that Vermont maple syrup, rather than pancake topping from neighboring New Hampshire, has found its way onto the high-profile bill-of-fare. Forget the policy implications. Never mind the agenda. The President wants his favorite syrup served up to his guests. In real life, Arkansas-native Clinton made sure that his hometown was on the map for more than just his birthplace. The Town of Hope (for those not among the fruit cognoscenti) boasts America's largest watermelons. A papier-mâché replica of 1985's record-breaking 260-pounder sits in the window of the chamber of commerce. On the South Lawn of the White House it became an annual August rite that a truckload of Hope's bounty would arrive on the eve of the town's annual Watermelon festival. The White House staff, members of Congress, and other VIPs would regularly drop their official duties, loosen their ties, and bite into a juicy noonday feast under the sun.

On a Hollywood soundstage, of course, a can of maple syrup is a more manageable prop than a truck oozing with ripened watermelon. Truth, as always, is stranger than fiction.

Joshua King, White House Director of Production from 1993 to 1997, is Vice President of Ntercept Communications.

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