That's the idea: Give politics a hip language.
It signifies the most powerful thing in America today: This is a cool place to work. The White House is a cool place to work.
But then the show goes a step further: This workplace is not just cool, but redeeming.
The White House, at a right-angle camera shot, under the blue sky and bright sun, then lit against a black velvet background, with Bonanza-like opening music, has never looked so good. (I have a friend who maintains that the Hay-Adams across the street has raised its rates for White House view rooms since the launch of The West Wing.)
The iconography -- under the portico, at the president's desk, in the private quarters -- is not just Kennedy, but David Douglas Duncan, the Kennedy photographer. The show has perfect pitch when it comes to image.
Not only is the White House a place you want to be, but the various West Wingers, including President Bartlet, are always throwing people out of it.
That's the message: If you're inside, you'll feel good about yourself. "The president's asking you to serve, and everything else is crap," says the former pill-popping, alcoholic chief of staff.
If you do one of those unnatural consecutive-viewing sessions, watching, more or less, all 30 episodes shown so far, from beginning to end, you see the nature of the show change. No doubt this is the result of more comfortable writing and getting the ensemble thing going and having a firmer sense of what plays. But you also see a success thing at work. A sense of what might be able to be accomplished. It is as well the kind of thing that happens when a political movement or candidacy gets traction -- now that you've scored with your base, how do you open it up? How do you go big?
At the end of last season, you had a classic big-TV cliff-hanger. Shots ring out. This season opened with blood, emergency rooms, terrorists (a.k.a. Hollywood violence). And since then, to my mind, the sentiment has gotten broader, the cutting quicker but more precise (for a while last year, the cutting seemed to have an Altman-esque confusion), the characters more vulnerable, the issues more ripped from the headlines (the show has had a notable prescience in this regard, dealing with osha carpal-tunnel regulations 72 hours before this became a front-page Times story, and, many months before Gore had his "You don't have to be snippy" exchange with Bush, having President Bartlet's secretary accusing him of being snippy: "You were snippy." "I wasn't snippy."
This is all about seizing an opportunity to go for a No. 1 show -- which may be where the real power in America lies. For Sorkin and Wells and company, one would suppose the power that concerns them is in the TV business.
Still, the political power must cross their minds.
If the show runs eight years and goes into syndication in a big way, muses one of the show's writers, then you would have a huge segment of voters who'd have been watching The West Wing for almost all of their voting lives . . .
It is among my daughter's political aspirations to meet Rob Lowe (that is, Lowe as the president's adviser). As we wait to meet him, I refrain from telling Elizabeth about his famous scandal and instead find myself talking about various politicians and what it is like to meet them. At the same time, there is no mistaking Lowe for a politician.
We see him at the Kennedy Center, on a cell phone, emerging from a black car, in tux, Armani overcoat, and, Elizabeth notes, Prada shoes. These are the fashion touches with which one makes politics cool.
His makeup gives him a kind of vampirish cast, which is oddly reminiscent of the Al Gore debate look, which, Elizabeth rightly surmises, means that Gore's makeup was not as wrong as people thought, but that he was lit badly. What Gore needed was the phalanx of technicians that has converged to film President Bartlet and Sam Seaborn at the Kennedy Center.
When we all sit down together, Elizabeth, holding her breath slightly, tells Lowe she's given up Dawson's Creek for The West Wing. He clearly understands the magnitude of that. We talk about the surprise and the vastness of The West Wing's success.
"And especially here -- we've been embraced by Washington. The cast is treated like rock stars," he says with some awe. (In order to be given the highest accord an entertainer can be given, in Washington, he has to play a politician.)
Politicians, when you talk to them, almost invariably have a distracted, I'm-listening-to-many-conversations-at-once look (except if you challenge them), whereas actors zero in on you, the eyes and smile entirely directed. So it's easy to begin to think of someone like Rob Lowe as not so much an actor as an unusually effective politician.
"Chelsea told me people are always asking her if the White House is like The West Wing. People tour the White House and they want to know where Sam's office is," he says -- proud of himself, it seems, proud of his position.
But at this point, he tries to draw a line. He doesn't think people should mix up the show with reality any more than this. Politics is politics. Entertainment is entertainment.
And yet, you can perhaps see something else here, a shift, an undercurrent not unknown in Hollywood. Here is Lowe, the actor off-screen, picking up the bad dialogue of politicians. "I had a fifth-grade teacher stop me in a Starbucks in my hometown and say, 'Thank you, thank you for what you've done. You've changed my life as a teacher of government . . .' "
This reflects that which reflects this which reflects that . . .
Rob asks Elizabeth where she wants to go to college. He says his character went to Princeton.
Elizabeth asks Sam if he can write her a recommendation.