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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?

LOWELL WEISS: Yes. In many ways. Various plot lines on the show are taken directly from real life—"ripped from the headlines," as network announcers like to say. The frenetic racing and nervous pacing in the West Wing halls is oh-so-familiar. The photographs of President Bartlet shaking hands with world leaders which appear on the walls in the TV show are actually Photoshopped versions of real Clinton photos, and the daily presidential schedules that appear on Bartlet's "Oval Office" desk are close approximations of Clinton's own. President Bartlet and President Clinton may have vastly different roots, but they are intellectual soulmates on most of their policy positions. Each man has an accomplished, ambitious wife and a young-adult daughter. Both men are great, empathetic communicators. They're both policy wonks. And they have similarly likeable personas.

Of course, there are major differences as well. Clinton chief of staff John Podesta likes to say that Bartlet's chief of staff, Leo McGarry, is not nearly mean enough. That's not true (Podesta's a very nice guy). But it is true that the characters on the show don't really attempt to capture their real-life counterparts. As with ER, the characters on The West Wing are distillations—that is, they each do the work, and have the density of experience, of ten or more people.

Also, the show's depictions of the President's interactions with his staff stray quite far from the mark. In reality, Oval Office briefings are rarely rolling repartee sessions (although second-term morning staff meetings in John Podesta's office, which did not include the President, often devolved into gallows-humorfests for aides Rahm Emanuel, Paul Begala, and Joe Lockhart). Clinton is as unstuffy and down-to-earth as Presidents get, but we, the hired help, would never think to address the President of the United States in the casual, insouciant way you see on TV every Wednesday night.

But the biggest difference between the two is simply this: The West Wing is a fairy tale. Instead of watching sausage-making, we see soufflé-creation. Instead of ugly but unavoidable compromises, we get neat, tidy, chaste solutions. Now, of course, it's precisely this fairy-tale quality that launches Chris Lehmann into orbit in his Atlantic piece. Frankly, I just don't see it his way. Was Top Gun bad for the U.S. Armed Forces? Is ER bad for hospitals or emergency physicians? Is Law and Order bad for law or order? Heck no. Sure, they're fairy tales. Sure, they're less complicated and less messy than real life. But they've managed to raise interest and boost morale in important institutions, and they've encouraged many young people to set their sights on pursuing vital—yet difficult, underpaid, and often underappreciated—careers.

Having said all this, would I be a fan of the show if it had a decidedly different worldview—that is, if it were a fairy tale for right-wingers rather than left-wingers? Probably not. Most likely, I'd experience intense jealousy that conservatives had managed to find such a powerful vehicle for getting out their message. I'd get worked up to indignancy. And then I'd probably write a scathing poli-sci-major critique of the show and pitch it to a respected, thoughtful magazine like The Atlantic.

Lowell Weiss served as a presidential speechwriter from 1997 to 2000. Before that, he was a speechwriter for Vice President Al Gore, wrote a book with political consultant James Carville, and served on the editorial staff of The Atlantic Monthly.

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