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Art Meets Politics

West Wing
Writer Aaron Sorkin, left, and actor Rob Lowe on the set of "The West Wing." (Michael Jacobs - For The Washington Post)

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By Sharon Waxman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 8, 2000; Page C01

BURBANK, Calif. At 11:15 on a recent Wednesday morning, Episode 18 of "West Wing" consists of a page and a half of dialogue that needs rewriting. The script should have been done a week ago. Shooting starts on Tuesday. And writer Aaron Sorkin has only the vaguest idea of what the episode will be about.

So far there's this: A camera pans over a crowd in the West Wing of the White House, then goes to a black screen as we hear the voice of a senator voting to confirm nominee Roberto Mendoza to the U.S. Supreme Court. Whoops and shouts erupt.

Beyond that, well--let's see. "I have slavery reparations for African Americans," Sorkin says, lighting the first Merit of the workday and shuffling through four orderly piles of research on his desk, the closest his writing staff will get to actually writing anything. "I have a panda crisis--that's been around for two episodes--China won't give us a replacement panda. I like that. Then there's the president with a lesser brother, but I don't think I'll use that one. And I have public school vouchers--that's interesting, but I'm not sure how to work it in."

He flicks an ash into a tray in his casually luxurious office on the Warner Bros. lot: an overstuffed leather couch, a massive framed map, potted palms and bowls filled with candy. "Did you know we paid $1.2 billion to Japanese Americans in 1988?" he says, bemused. "Someone has calculated that the net wages owed to black Americans pre-emancipation is something like"--he scans some typed notes--"$4.4 trillion." He looks up. "And that looks like a steal to me." Pause. "Where would we get the cash?" Ahhh--a scene in the making. Sorkin half-smiles. "I'll do that. I'll look at the research and start talking out loud: 'That looks like a steal to me.' 'Where would we get the cash?' " he says. "Once you get two people to disagree about something, you have a scene."

Desperation? Inspiration? What's the difference, as long as you end up with episode 18 at the all-work, all-panic whirligig that is NBC's first-year drama, "West Wing." Sorkin--with the insane ambition matched only by David Kelley, creator of "Ally McBeal" and "The Practice"--has been writing the show simultaneously with his half-hour dramedy, "Sports Night," now in its second year. "I'm in an almost perpetual state of terror," he confesses, with overcaffeinated candor.

The dialogue-heavy script for "West Wing" usually lands eight hours before filming, leaving the crew scrambling for props and cast members mumbling lines as they pace the set. But despite the undercurrent of hysteria, more than halfway through the season "West Wing" seems somehow to have ripened, deepened and snagged a toehold in the popular culture. Ratings for the Wednesday night show have held firm at about 13 million (predominantly older and upscale) viewers a week, consistently winning its time slot. It also wins in Washington, with an audience of some 320,000. In Washington political circles--most especially in the real-life West Wing--"West Wing" has found a mother lode of dedicated fans, grateful for Sorkin's depiction of political drones as something other than cads, crooks and clowns.

"The thing that attracted me was Aaron's premise, that politicians--from the president on down--are good people, that they're there for the right reasons, even if they may make wrong choices," says Dee Dee Myers, the former White House press secretary and now one of three political consultants on the show. The others are Democrats, too, party strategist Pat Caddell and former Daniel Patrick Moynihan aide Lawrence O'Donnell. They, like the writers, offer story lines, political issues and inside dope--all of which Sorkin takes or leaves at his pleasure.

"Ever since Watergate there's been this evolving cartoon of politicians as blustery, self-promoting, power-hungry people," Myers continues. "This shows something much closer to the truth. Most people I knew at the White House were good people, and in that regard I think it's much, much closer to the truth than what we usually see."

Wishful Thinking

So let's just call "West Wing" what it really is: a transparent homage to the Clinton presidency, circa first administration. (Myers calls it "the Clinton we wish could've been.") President Jed Bartlet, played by Martin Sheen, is charismatic and cerebral and a Democratic centrist on issues such as hate crimes and health care. He has a brainy wife played by Stockard Channing (a doctor instead of a lawyer). Aides played by Brad Whitford and Rob Lowe are just the sort of politically green whippersnappers who populated Clinton's first four years, while press secretary CJ, played with caustic wit by Allison Janney, seems based on Myers. (CJ is in a heavy flirtation with a White House reporter; Myers, now married to New York Times reporter Todd Purdum, requests that the record reflect that she began dating him after leaving the White House. Done.)

But it's not the depiction of political beliefs that makes the show work. Something about Sorkin's gift for droll repartee, his canny mix of the mundane (an emergency root canal for CJ) with the life-threatening (war breaks out between India and Pakistan) succeeds in making politics entertaining, while retaining an authentic feel.

His dialogue crackles, as in this brief exchange between reporter Danny Concannon and presidential aide Josh Lyman, who takes over the press briefing from CJ after her root canal:

Concannon: You really don't wanna do this.

Lyman: Lemme tell you something, mi compadre. You guys have been coddled. I'm not your girlfriend. I'm not your camp counselor. I'm not your sixth-grade teacher you had a crush on. I'm a graduate of Harvard and Yale, and I believe my powers of debate can rise to meet the Socratic wonder that is the White House press corps.

Lyman then proceeds to catastrophically bungle the briefing, leaving reporters with the impression that the president has a secret plan to fight inflation. He does this by denying, repeatedly, that there's a secret plan to fight inflation.

"He's a genius," says actor Tim Busfield, who plays Concannon, which is about the eighth time a cast member has begun drooling over Sorkin during a reporter's two-day visit to the set. "We've been around long enough. We've seen the dregs. You don't get writing like this outside of maybe 'thirtysomething' [which Busfield starred on]. Aaron is the difference between The Washington Post and some free rag at the corner."

"It's manna from heaven. It's like gold. But it's a lot of lines. Aaron's stuff--it's like fire, it's so fast," sighs John Spencer, who plays the chief of staff, after shooting a take in the Oval Office with Sheen. His character is a recovering alcoholic and pill-popper, and all hell breaks out when this fact leaks to the press. Spencer is, in fact, a recovering alcoholic, but Sorkin says he based the story line on his own past cocaine addiction, for which he once went to rehab and still attends meetings.

Spencer steps outside for a smoke and explains that he pursued the role after reading the pilot. "I thought, 'I gotta do this.' I chased the role. You know, you put your life on hold when you do this. You work all the time, and then you try to fit in other stuff during the hiatus." He pauses. "But we're always trying to turn [expletive] into gold. This starts out with gold--if you mess up, it's your own fault."

"There's a first-year enthusiasm on this show. The people here really care about it--that's hard to find," says Ken Olin, who starred on "thirtysomething" and is directing an episode about a blowup between the president and first lady over her meddling in his legislative affairs.

The effort shows, from Sorkin on down. While political friends in Washington used to whine that the suits the aides wore were too expensive, that there was too much movement in the West Wing halls, now they call to invite the writer and his gang to the White House. Spencer and Janney were recently mobbed by well-wishers at the Old Ebbitt Grill when they were in Washington to shoot some exteriors. The Marines happily offered the use of an honor guard for a scene in which a homeless veteran was buried.

Then there was the White House visit in January when Clinton--in a priceless Hollywood/Washington moment--pitched the producers on a story idea. Producers Tommy Schlamme and Lou Wells were standing with Rob Lowe between the Roosevelt Room and the Oval Office when suddenly Clinton appeared. He chatted for 20 minutes, posed for some pictures. Then, Schlamme recalls, the president lightly suggested that a story line about journalists "could make a good show"; how about putting the Washington press corps in conflict with tabloid reporters? he asked.

Then he headed off to Congress to deliver the State of the Union address. And Joe Lockhart invited the cast into the East Room to watch.

Politics and Principles

Despite its current success, the show did not exactly come shooting out of the gate. Hollywood generally regards politics as prime-time poison, and "West Wing" was no exception.

Sorkin--a Wunderkind who was in his late twenties when he wrote the military courtroom drama "A Few Good Men" as a play--dreamed up the "West Wing" pilot along with the concept for "Sports Night" around the time he was holed up in a Los Angeles hotel working on "The American President," a film he wrote for director Rob Reiner in the mid-'90s.

By the time he shopped the script for "West Wing" to different networks, the country was in Full Monica mode and everyone passed; who knew if Clinton would be around by fall? Meanwhile, "Sports Night" got a green light from ABC. (Sorkin and the network have since battled over the show's low ratings. Though praised by critics, it may be dropped for next fall.)

But once impeachment was over, executives reconsidered. Entire cable networks had been launched on Monica alone, and political drama (or at least political soap opera) suddenly felt current. NBC signed on.

But here's the twist: While "West Wing" gives Sorkin a sturdy soapbox for his own political views, he insists that he's not very knowledgeable about politics and not even terribly interested in the game. He just thought it made for rich dramatic material.

"Anyone whose understanding of politics is sophisticated will tell you that mine is not," says Sorkin. "It's not what I do: I'm a dramatist, whether I'm writing a military court martial or a romantic comedy in the White House or 'Sports Night.' "

Sorkin, 38, has dark hair and hawklike features that are well suited to the intense, intelligent banter he wields as a tool of aggressive charm. He is tall and lean, wearing a black-and-white-striped shirt, jeans and sneakers that make him look more like a postgraduate student than a heavyweight of the prime-time lineup. "I write," he is saying, "because I genuinely love it. That doesn't change if I'm writing about politics or sports. Even if it seems as if there's more meat on the bone on 'West Wing'--which I would contest--what I love doing is entertaining in this manner."

While he's at it, Sorkin also disputes that the show has a liberal Democratic bent, despite the obvious. "There have been just as many episodes where the president has not commuted a death sentence or where he has sent the parents of a gay teenager home because they don't support his legislation," he argues. As what? As episodes where the president's daughter dates a black White House staffer? As episodes where the president names a militant Latino judge to the Supreme Court? As episodes where a senior adviser persuades the president to remove the line "the era of big government is over" from the State of the Union speech? If you let Sorkin talk for long enough, however, he'll contradict this himself.

He comes from a left-leaning, upper-middle-class family from Manhattan that moved to Scarsdale when he was 8, where the other kids came from families that were wealthy, smart and ambitious.

Sorkin remembers feeling sorry for Richard Nixon in 1971, in the middle of the Watergate scandal. Nonetheless, at age 10 he volunteered at George McGovern headquarters to impress a girl in his class. Nixon was coming to White Plains for a rally, and Sorkin recalls standing on the roadside holding a "McGovern for President" sign. Just as Nixon's motorcade came around the bend, an old lady came up behind Sorkin, grabbed the sign, whacked him on the head with it and then rubbed it in the dirt.

This made a deep political impression on the boy. "It so stunned me," he recalls. "There's a part of me that's been trying to get back at that woman ever since."

But his real passion was to be an actor. At 13 he would sneak into Manhattan to see plays on weekends, and he went on to major in musical theater at Syracuse University. He claims he felt unequal to the intellectual discussions at home and among brainy friends, but even he admits that he always had an ear. He could memorize things. "I got good at imitating the sound of intelligence," he says.

He was visiting his sister, a Navy lawyer--"you can't imagine how unlikely that is for someone in my family," he says--when he discovered, to his surprise, that people in the armed forces were not the "violence-loving jarheads" he presumed they'd be. "These people were fantastic," he recalls. "They could be earning more money, but they're serving a good cause." It inspired him to write "A Few Good Men," the tale of a snotty Army lawyer (Tom Cruise) who comes to appreciate the value of public service while exposing corruption in the military. (Remember the speech in which Jack Nicholson shouts "You can't handle the truth"?)

The play was a success on Broadway before being snapped up for director Rob Reiner. Reiner then commissioned Sorkin to write "The American President," which starred Michael Douglas and Annette Bening. That project took him on research visits to the White House.

The people he met, again, were underpaid, overworked and mostly motivated by idealism. "It was just like I thought people in the military would be. I really liked them, and respected them," he says. "Patriotism always seemed silly to me," he continues after a long pause. "And I discovered that I have a sense of patriotism that moves me, and that I enjoy writing about."

That in itself is political in the extreme, whatever Sorkin may say to the contrary. Like it or not, "West Wing" is a cultural signpost of the post-post-Watergate era, the first show in decades to suggest that modern-day politics might involve ideals or heroism or noble intentions.

An Unfinished Script

It is 1 p.m. and pouring in unrelenting sheets on the Warner backlot. "West Wing" has moved into a diner to shoot a scene between presidential minder Charlie (played by Dule Hill) and presidential daughter Zoey (Elizabeth Moss). Sorkin was supposed to have been writing episode 18 for an hour by now, but instead he is here, furiously chewing gum and watching with evident pleasure. He can't resist hearing his dialogue come to life.

The camera's on Charlie, who is listening to Zoey explain why they can't go out Saturday night, how it's too dangerous, there have been death threats. Charlie starts reading from Zoey's college text about race-based restrictions from the past. "Cut!" Olin shouts, and Sorkin leans over, offering a suggestion for Hill. Then he's off: "I'll be back," he says, and heads for the door. "Where you going?" challenges Olin good-naturedly, knowing very well that Sorkin is headed to check on his other baby, "Sports Night," being shot over at the Disney lot. "Just remember what you said," Olin shouts after him--"They're the Miata. We're the Maserati!"

Tick, tock. At 2 o'clock Sorkin shows up at a screening for the cast of that night's episode. He can't resist that either. By 3:15 he's headed back to the office to write, several hours behind his already-overdue deadline.

Things don't improve much thereafter. By Tuesday, four days after Sorkin planned to complete episode 18, the cast has assembled. Shooting has begun.

The script isn't finished.

By this point Sorkin is too tired to be in an active state of panic, though that's clearly what the situation calls for. "They're shooting today and I'm not done," he says glumly. "My mind is turning to jello. My brain is not working the way I would like it to." So far he's gotten to Act 3, three-quarters of the way through the show.

Still, he resists calling on his staff of writers. He'll set pen to paper, and fingers to keyboard, and see what comes out. It will turn out all right in the end. At least, it has so far.

"If I were writing a movie or a play, I wouldn't do this. I wouldn't have started 'A Few Good Men' without knowing it was heading for high noon in the courtroom," he explains, in an earlier conversation. "When I write episode 18, I have to start. I don't know how it'll end. I don't know what's in the middle, but I do trust a little bit," he says. "It's like driving your car in the dark road, late at night. The headlights light up a little way in front of the car, and the farther you creep up, the farther the headlights show you the way. So you just write on faith." He sighs. "You trust yourself that you're gonna get to the end.

"But I'm not this social studies teacher who's taken up this pulpit. . . . I don't want to be too big for my britches. I seek only to captivate for one hour the people who have been good enough to give me their attention. And I'll do everything I can to achieve that."

© 2000 The Washington Post Company