The creator of "The West Wing" likes it when the show has impact, but that isn't what Aaron Sorkin has in mind. He knows he is providing a happy hour for drooping Democrats, but all he really wants to do is entertain. "We're just this side of carnival people," he says of himself and the team of writers who dish up the weekly fare of tension, teamwork and hot-button issues that audiences are gobbling up.
Last week's thriller was written by Dee Dee Myers, President Bill Clinton's first press secretary. She had the idea of dramatizing the question of nuclear waste, which is about to be voted on in the Senate. Myers figured that the fight over a repository in Nevada's Yucca Mountain had the right stuff for the show, and she was right. She imagined an accident in a Nevada tunnel in which a truck transporting radioactive waste is hit by another truck, with God knows what consequences on a nearby city.
This is just the kind of problem that Jed Bartlet, the too-good-to-be-true chief executive, loves to get his teeth into. He is a Democrats' dream, the antithesis of the incumbent. He is a former New Hampshire governor, a Nobel Prize-winning economist, profoundly literate and proudly intellectual. On Wednesday he engaged a staffer's retiring high school English teacher in a discussion of "Beowulf" and "Twelfth Night." He argues with his prickly doctor-wife, and he's nice enough to do his body man's income tax returns. When he has to call the parents of young Americans killed abroad, he's humble: When, after being exhaustively briefed by his staff, he finally gets through, he says to them: "I have three children of my own, I don't know what to say to you."
He is, as he tells his chief of staff, "a half-hour ahead" of those around him in technical information about the strength of the casks carrying the radioactive waste. He doesn't take sides on the question of storing radioactive waste from all nuclear plants in one state -- that isn't the "West Wing" way. Nor does anyone touch on the larger question -- the future of nuclear energy, which permanent storage would help decide. Senate Democratic Whip Harry Reid of Nevada, who is leading the fight against the Yucca Mountain site, was nonetheless ecstatic. Thursday morning his phones were ringing with congratulations that held out hope of checks to help the campaign fund and celebrity endorsements from Hollywood. Reid conveyed his joy to Dee Dee Myers.
Reid and his Republican colleague Sen. John Ensign are at the door-to-door phase of their drive. They call on their fellow senators, sometimes together, seeking support. Yucca is a tough vote. The White House is all for the repository -- Vice President Cheney is a nuclear energy fan. Democrats are torn between pleasing Reid and pleasing their constituents, who favor Yucca because they sure don't want to see radioactive waste dumped in their states.
If gratitude were the operating principle, Reid would have no trouble rounding up unanimous Democratic support. He made what most senators regard as the supreme sacrifice: He gave up the chairmanship of the Senate's environmental committee, stepping aside in favor of Jim Jeffords, the Vermont Republican who switched to independent and made the Senate Democratic. Majority Leader Tom Daschle asked Reid to deliver Jeffords, and Reid came through. Democrats with gavels owe their chairmanships to Reid, something they would just as soon forget now, as he comes knocking on their doors.
Dee Dee Myers is one of several Clinton alumni who write for Aaron Sorkin. She may not be the only one who keeps a list of things that Bush has gotten away with and Clinton "would have been crucified for." At the top is Bush's stealth signing of the campaign reform bill, co-authored by his nemesis, John McCain. Myers is now married to New York Times correspondent Todd Purdum. Eli Attie, ex-Gore speechwriter, and Gene Sperling, Clinton economic adviser, are on call. Three Republican contributors: Bush I press secretary Marlin Fitzwater, Reagan biographer Peggy Noonan and pollster Frank Luntz. "The West Wing" has taken on such controversies as land mines, slave reparations and the tobacco lobby.
Aaron Sorkin says he has no political agenda. His most controversial show was post-Sept. 11 on two terrorists, "Isaac" and "Ishmael." It outraged more viewers than anything he has presented: "I have to face the fact that it wasn't good." He did not invent Jed Bartlet to torture Democrats. The character is based on his father, a New York lawyer.
Clinton chief of staff John Podesta is a fan particularly of last week's "West Wing," since he is a consultant to Harry Reid on Yucca Mountain. He thinks the show conveys the "intensity and the commitment of the White House staff."
There is, of course, no Dick Morris on President Bartlet's staff.