City Says Goodbye to 'West Wing,' Its Chattier Self

Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 15, 2006; Page B01

Washingtonians gathered around televisions last night for the series finale of "The West Wing," a program from a parallel universe in which the president is named Bartlet, terrorists come from Qumar and no one in the White House is allowed to finish a sentence.

The NBC program, which signed off its final broadcast at 9 p.m., was television's homage to Washington, from its regal theme music and iconic imagery of the city to its celebration of leaks, press briefings and spin control.

Viewing parties popped up across the region. "West Wing" was, in many ways, a home-town show, as "Cheers" was for Boston and "Seinfeld" for Manhattan. For some, it was a little too close to home.

"It was exactly like watching work," said Adam Levine, a communications specialist in the District who was an assistant White House press secretary for two years under President Bush. "You'd sit there and you would have just come out of a meeting in the Roosevelt Room, and you'd flip on the show and they are all sitting there having a meeting in the Roosevelt Room."

The show wasn't necessarily water-cooler material inside the real West Wing; people there work just as hard as their counterparts on the program and they haven't the time, Levine said. But it was a beloved weekly ritual for many former West Wingers, some of whom, such as Levine, consulted for the show's writers.

"I watched the show early on and haven't missed an episode in the last two seasons," said Scott Stanzel, another former Bush White House spokesman. He stopped watching only during what he calls the show's "preachy period," in the middle of its seven-season run, when the left-leaning Democratic administration portrayed on the program went a bit "over the top with its devout liberalism."

In an Arlington apartment last night, six young Democrats watched the finale on a projection screen, after an "all-American" turkey dinner. The core of the group -- twin sisters Morgan and Lauren Miller and Christy Gill, all 22 -- began watching "The West Wing" three years ago with their Democratic club at the University of California at Los Angeles, and imported the tradition to Washington when they moved east.

Someone in the group noted how old everyone looked: NBC had replayed the show's 1999 pilot before airing the final episode.

"They're supposed to look old when they leave the White House," Lauren Miller responded. "Look at Bush; look at Clinton."

The general consensus among fans, insiders and TV critics is that "The West Wing" began as a riff on the Clinton administration. Critics say it continued down that path even as it strayed farther and farther from political reality, to the point that its fictional White House would find liberal resolutions to real-life problems faced by the right-leaning Bush administration. Some Republican detractors dubbed the show "The Left Wing."

Jennifer Palmieri, a press aide during the Clinton years, recalls when the real West Wing learned of an early concept for the show.

"We heard it was going to be about young former Southern governor who was divorced and had a 13-year-old daughter. Does that sound familiar? Except for the divorced part," she said. Producers ended up giving the fictional president a New Hampshire background and three daughters and patching up his marriage.

Palmieri, who lives in the Old Town section of Alexandria, remembers when the cast came to visit their counterparts in summer 1999: John Podesta, Clinton's chief of staff, hung out with actor John Spencer, his TV facsimile; Press Secretary Joe Lockhart paired off with Allison Janney.

But she stopped watching the show after the 2001 season, because "when Gore lost, it was like being at your ex-boyfriend's wedding, every week."

There are good reasons for the show's undeniable appeal to legions of Republicans, whatever its apparent Democratic bias.

Its accuracy in rendering real life in the West Wing was "jaw-dropping," said Levine, who was a consultant early in the series, down to "which staffers would talk to what people about what subjects, to what pins they would wear."

Do real-life West Wingers really talk as fast as the jabber-jaws who play them on television? No, said Levine: The real halls of power have "more the feel of a library." Yes, Palmieri said: "I don't think anybody ever finished a sentence in eight years in the West Wing, including Clinton."

Some of the program's best moments transcended partisan politics, as when, in a recent episode, victorious Democratic presidential candidate Matt Santos, played by Jimmy Smits, offers to make his vanquished foe, Alan Alda's Arnold Vinick, secretary of state.

Alda's character so eloquently expressed Republican views in the final weeks of the show that he changed some minds on the predominantly left-leaning writing staff, said Lawrence O'Donnell, an executive producer.

"It's Pat Buchanan's favorite TV show," O'Donnell said. "And that, for me, means that it's a very successful TV show."

Ultimately, "The West Wing" was not a program about politics, he said.

"I was always trying to write the best drama that I could write for television," O'Donnell said. "If it had been a politics show, it wouldn't have lasted a season."

Joel Bradshaw, a computer consultant to a defense contractor had "absolutely no interest in politics, or a show about politics," when he stumbled across a "West Wing" episode early on. The Fairfax resident was hooked by the plot lines, and "it got to the point where I planned my week around not missing an episode of 'West Wing,' " he said. "I've seen people around town with 'Bartlet is my president' T-shirts, and if I knew where to get one, I'd probably buy one."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company