Our Remote-Control President

My 16-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, has recently given up Dawson’s Creek for The West Wing. While you may not think this is of get-clean-for-Gene magnitude, that could be because you did not live through the grip of Dawson’s Creek last year.

When we stood together the other evening at the Kennedy Center, where President Bartlet had gone to hear the Icelandic Symphony (he had, in his sharp and straightforward way, insulted the Icelandic ambassador and was now making amends), my studious but glamour-inclined daughter compared the moment, with only slightly conscious irony, to when Bill Clinton came to Washington and met John Kennedy.

Watching all of elite Washington turn out for the Kennedy Center event – the men with trench coats over black tie, the women in gray gowns, the various Secret Service details and swarms of D.C. motorcycle cops, along with Sam Seaborn, the president’s deputy director of communications, outside on a cell phone, and C. J. Cregg, the White House press secretary, checking her makeup – I was startled to suddenly remember the time my own father had brought me to Washington. I remembered the feeling, the message: This was it; you could get no higher, do no better, achieve no more.

“Everyone have their mark?” screamed an assistant director to elite Washington, which, having exited the Kennedy Center regally once, backed up and exited regally again.

This, I said gesturing to the actors, “reflects that” – I indicated Washington – “which comes to reflect this again,” I said to Elizabeth by way of explaining postmodernism.

“Well, I don’t care,” said Elizabeth unambiguously. “This is so much better than that. A president should be like President Bartlet. People who work in the White House should be like Sam Seaborn. That’s so obvious.”

Harvard to Washington to Hollywood is a good career trajectory.

The intuitive thing for an age in which political entropy is so extreme that we cannot express a presidential preference would be some really evil-ish satire, a torment aimed at the bland, self-interested pasty boys who run the big show. Something MacBird-like. But, perhaps not unforeseeably, the counterintuitive prevails. The West Wing presents politics as the last (and certainly the most) honorable profession. You could not, even satirically, create a portrait more at odds with reality than The West Wing is at odds with the current political world. The daily news is a demented piece of ridicule; The West Wing is the wholesome commonweal.

Indeed, it probably doesn’t matter much who – if anyone – becomes president in January because the real president will be Josiah Bartlet. All actions, therefore, taken in the actual White House will be confounded by the problem: How will what we do here compare to what’s happening on the show, and will we come off worse? You can, with not too much difficulty, imagine The West Wing replacing national politics or offering some preferable parallel world, like a sort of benign Manchurian candidate. And there’s nothing much real politicians will be able to do about it.

The other radically unintuitive thing is the idea that a show about politics could even make it onto the air – suggesting a deepening complexity in the Hollywood-Washington relationship and, no doubt, a further dissociative condition on the part of most Americans (we’ve arrived at the point where we can have fantasies about politics because we’ve lost all pretense of being engaged in the reality).

Hollywood, of course, likes politics. Or at least it likes Democrats. Or at least it likes Bill Clinton. Hollywood and Washington may be the last enclaves to still be interested in politics. It is even a status thing in the movie business to have worked in politics. Harvard to Washington to Hollywood is a good career trajectory. But politics, as everyone in the media business knows, has not, in long memory, worked as entertainment (at least outside of the thriller category). Politics is virtually the antithesis of entertainment. Indeed, politics works less and less even as news – at best it’s a specialized interest for an older, less desirable demographic.

The idea of a television show about the White House in an hour-long drama format, which, given the vast attendant costs, needs the broadest possible audience that exists in any medium today, is, at best, unbusinesslike. That it actually got into production and on a network schedule initially seemed like some serious Hollywood-DNC-Time Warner- support-the-cause logrolling.

Or worse: This was Hollywood vulgarity. If the pinnacle of a Hollywood career was to sleep in the Lincoln Bedroom, then, by God, Hollywood would create a better, bigger Lincoln Bedroom.

No question, The West Wing’s set designers produced not only an exact White House, but a substantially better one. Larger, cleaner, sharper – in some sense realer (with better technology too; they don’t hand out wafer-thin laptops in the real White House).

A cavalcade of big media, big political types, plus Chelsea Clinton, toured the set this summer during the Democratic convention, with everyone marveling at the infinitely better proportions and appointments in the Burbank White House.

Jackie Kennedy and Sister Parish had nothing on these White House designers.

So: a television show inspired by the Clinton White House, which then recruits people from the Clinton White House to work on the show, which then produces a version of life as it might have been if you could have remade not only the nature of politics but the nature of Bill Clinton, and which now has official Washington in paroxysms of self-congratulation.

To be sure, The West Wing does not in the least rise above the limitations of its genre. It’s a television set piece, something entirely formulaic, earnest, goody-goody, proud of itself, overproduced. And exactly for these reasons, it may be on its way to being the most important political document of the age.

Like a lawyer show or cop show or doctor show, it begins to create an entertainment distortion field that not only changes the way we view reality (people now regularly show up in emergency rooms instructing nurses and doctors on how they ought to be doing things), but changes the behavior, affect, and self-image of the people who work in these jobs. We will soon be looking for West Wing traits in real candidates – Sam Seaborn is the face of can-do.

Because it has appeared at just the moment when politics as we know it is in the act of some weird Velvet Revolution type of self-destruction, The West Wing could well earn a historic place in the reinvention of political culture – even though it is, quite clearly, not about politics at all.

Politics is about impersonal stuff – it’s about the needs and the annoyances of large numbers of people (Medicare, Social Security, prescription drugs – by all appearances, politics is increasingly about large numbers of annoying old people). Even the personal (abortion, health, morality) becomes impersonal when it becomes political.

And in the media age, the face of politics has become ever more distant, practiced, phony. No one has to be told that it’s all P.R.

Politics has become – perhaps it has always been – about behaving properly in public. It’s ritualistic behavior. It’s about maintaining an illusion that is less and less consequential to anyone but politicians (this was the root of the great impeachment schism).

The world changed – social relationships, behavior, interpersonal sophistication, emotional self-awareness, the general vibe, what people talk about with each other changed. But politics stayed the same – disconnected, uptight, repressed. Part of the present mess results, no doubt, from the desperately unfortunate circumstance of having two candidates who are both at the extremes of the impersonal, each man with a phony family and religion and personal history, each stunted in his ability to make plausible eye contact.

The West Wing, on the other hand, is about what television is about: quickly formed relationships, hurried intimacy, sharp language, everyday dysfunctions, tense, emotional negotiating, juicy human failings and foibles (virtually everybody on The West Wing has personal issues that would exclude them from a career in politics) – everything they teach in screenwriting class.

In effect, The West Wing offers a new version of the smoke-filled backroom: characters far from their real and boring lives (of course, most of The West Wing’s characters don’t have a life outside the office, including the president, whose wife is always away), in a hothouse setting, with the blooming of all variety of soap-opera loves and hates. This not only works as compressed drama and supplies any number of simultaneous narratives, it is what large numbers of Americans experience – or wish they’d experience – in their own office situations. We all work in hermetic environments, filled with fraught relationships, far from our so-called real lives. This is family.

When I speak to Aaron Sorkin, the 39-year-old screenwriter from Scarsdale who created The West Wing – his first major hit – he certainly doesn’t want to engage in a political discussion. He admits to not being qualified – nor does he seem all that interested.

The West Wing isn’t a political drama, he notes; in screenwriter, Hollywood-television-meeting talk, it’s a workplace drama. Indeed, it is a sly and effective change of emphasis from his initial, more modest foray into politics, the movie The American President, which is a romantic comedy.

This is how it happened: After his series Sports Night became a critical if not a ratings success, Sorkin was lucky enough to get a lunch with John Wells, the ER producer, whom you had to be very lucky to get a lunch with. So Sorkin pitched Wells, as anyone obviously would, an ER-type show: a drama about senior staffers in the White House. Now, whereas most people would think b-o-r-i-n-g – like, Why not do a show about the thing that is the most irritating and the least interesting to the greatest number of Americans? – Wells saw the thing he was most looking for, a possible new sort of emergency room.

Crisis. Proximity. High purpose. Personal angst. Beguiling young people. Nothing, in other words, that has anything to do with politics.

Indeed, few of The West Wing’s various producers want to talk about politics. This is part of the reality mix-up: Like the ER people called upon to talk about health care, they protest that they really don’t know anything about politics. On the other hand, if you start to think about it, if you really were staging a new kind of coup, a media coup, a kind of reverse Wag the Dog, not the government creating a fake film, but the film community creating a fake government, you probably wouldn’t want to talk about it either.

Sorkin tries to deflect my question about the present mess and the relationship of The West Wing to the mess’s potential outcome (what if it’s a Republican administration?) with some screenwriter blah-blah about Aristotle’s Poetics (screenwriters talk this way). He does, though, allow that the general political climate has certainly been good for the show – that the time “is just ripe for the cavalry to come riding in.”

But then he can’t resist. He rewrites the present mess, removing all the chaos, the bloated language, and the media mirroring and reduces it to pure story: It’s Fail Safe. The first act has to do with the infallibility of the networks and the existing polling system. Then, in the second act, after the world and all our assumptions about it come undone, Katherine Harris, the villain, will, against all truth to the contrary, certify the inconclusive, premature vote – giving Bush the presidency. But, because evil never wholly subverts the will of good people, the counting goes on, spontaneously, rebelliously, into the night. By the morning, Gore comes into the lead. He’s now leading in the electoral as well as the popular vote. At which point the decision falls to the Electoral College, and a few good men with the courage … etc.

It is not just for drama’s sake that in Sorkin’s version Gore is winning, and emerging heroically. In addition to being a Hollywood version of reality, The West Wing is a Hollywood Democrat’s version of reality.

The West Wing is, with no apologies, liberal, relativist, left-leaning (although Peggy Noonan and Marlin Fitzwater are consultants, as are Dee Dee Myers and Pat Caddell). An issue recently was whether Mao ought to be quoted by President Bartlet. If real politics is necessarily always tethered to small town-ish Babbittry, this is the flip side: a White House of Eastern, liberal Jews (and a New England Catholic president), where the president’s daughter dates (has sex with) the president’s black aide. The West Wing defines the cultural difference between the Democratic blue states and the Republican red states – between a desirable media demographic and an undesirable one (“This guy sells dental supplies in the Twin Cities – how enlightened do you think he’ll be?” asks Sam Seaborn – nailing the Democratic idea of the Republican half of the nation).

The fact that the viewing audience doesn’t seem bothered by the bias might suggest what most of pop culture suggests: People are a lot more liberal than they vote.

Or, following the Reagan historical model, wherein the character issue is so much better handled by actors than by politicians, of course even Republican voters would have no problem with Martin Sheen as their president. The West Wing extends the Reagan model – not just an actor changing careers and becoming president, but an actor who just plays the president becoming as potent a symbol as the actual president.

Sheen has been preparing for this role longer than most politicians prepare for the presidency. In The American President, the Sorkin-written precursor, Sheen played the chief of staff to Michael Douglas’s president. Then, too, he’s played both Kennedy brothers (connoisseurs of Kennedy mini-series debate whether Sheen was a better John or Bobby), not to mention playing John Dean in Blind Ambition. (Many West Wing actors have former political roles – C. J., or Alison Janney, played the teacher who was the Clinton-Travolta-Jack Stanton opening quickie in Primary Colors.)

Harvard to Washington to Hollywood is a good career trajectory.

In real life, Sheen is, eccentrically, not a limousine-liberal Hollywood Democrat. He is a radical Catholic. He was an apostate who returned to the Church, with Daniel Berrigan, the oft-imprisoned priest, as his role model. He gave the $200,000 he earned for his role in Gandhi to Mother Teresa. He himself is regularly arrested in the service of righteous causes. For his opening line on The West Wing, he walks into a dispute with the religious right and quotes the First Commandment: I am the Lord, your God, thou shalt worship no other gods before me . . .

He is, forcefully, not Clinton.

Possibly he is a version of Bobby Kennedy – some imagined, older Bobby. He is Roosevelt-like too. Or the twinkling eyes are. What’s more, his President Bartlet suffers from multiple sclerosis, which the country, to be distinguished from the audience, does not know about. Like Roosevelt’s polio.

Sheen converts all of the usual pitfalls, the sentiment, the sanctimony, the earnestness, even the overly windy dialogue of political dramas, all of which are present here, into some effective and compelling and pure type of liberal social realism. This is a picture of politics as how it should be. Here is a president as decent, as human, as robust, as any farmer or steelworker in the thirties.

Certainly, it has been many years since a president has been played as anything other than a falling-down loon or a craven maniac, much less as a father, husband, professor, Nobel Prize winner (in economics), larger-than-life philosopher-king, as well as, occasionally, angry man (“I am going to blow them off of the face of the earth with the fury of God’s own thunder,” he says about some terrorist group that has downed a plane carrying his personal physician).

What we have is the complete absence of irony and cynicism. President Bartlet is fully idealized. And yet it is an oddly, or beguilingly, credible portrait. We seem to want it to be, anyway.

While President Bartlet is the opposite of Clinton, he probably could not have existed without Clinton. Through Clinton we got the first glimpse in the modern age of the real White House, with recognizable and identifiable people working there – in addition to having unseemly office romances there. Imagine trying to idealize the already overly idealized Reagan years – propagandizing the propaganda. You needed a real White House to build your fantasy on. You needed a flawed man to redeem. You needed an act to clean up.

Next to Clinton, it is the spirit of George Stephanopoulos that hovers here. Stephanopoulos created the archetype of a senior staffer with top-flight mass-media appeal. Before Stephanopoulos, political operatives were specialized figures, at best character actors – too regional, too rarefied, too rough, too cynical. Peggy Noonan, Marlin Fitzwater, Lyn Nofziger, Sidney Blumenthal, James Carville, and Dick Morris are too much their own caricatures (the one over-the-top killer political-op character in the show, Mandy, based loosely on Mandy Grunwald, was dropped after the first season). In Stephanopoulos, you had a young, upwardly mobile everyman in the White House.

When Sorkin went to the White House to do his research for The American President, he spent fifteen minutes talking to Stephanopoulos “in this small office where he’s eating food off a tray,” and found that they’re the same age and, to his surprise, that they have friends in common – the writers David Handelman and Eric Alterman, whom Sorkin knows from Scarsdale High. “We’re talking there just like we might be talking in my college dorm room.”

There you have it. It’s a yuppie thing, which is the necessary background for all workplace dramas – upward mobility and professional achievement provide the underlying tension. It’s yuppie social realism, zooming in on, and resolving, the quintessential yuppie (as well as American) conflict: How do we get what we want, when we want it, while still seeing ourselves as the last best hope for man?

These are attractive young people. Young (Sam Seaborn is only eight years out of law school – Dewey Ballantine to the White House). Well educated (casual in their snobbery about their educations). Hip. Funny. Jeans and old sweaters in the White House. Fast on their feet. As well as virtuous (independent men with more than self-interest at heart, taking control of the government).

For the first time in several generations, politics becomes aspirational.

Plus, they banter. The art of banter, which is both a workplace and television writer’s art, the true insider’s patois (there’s a special rhythm to the banter in the show, a staccato syllabification), may be at the heart of The West Wing’s success. For a generation now, the coolest banter was movie banter. But the thing with banter is it’s probably not the place so much, or the job, but the talk itself, the lingo, that is compelling.

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.

E-mail: michael@burnrate.com

Our Remote-Control President