Let's see: NBC's hot new series features a White House full of well-intentioned young aides who sometimes fall prey to self-importance. Their personal lives are in chaos due to their frenetic work paces and tangled romantic exploits. They spend lots of time around reporters, usually trying to shoo them away from damaging stories.
Hmmm . . . it does ring a vague bell.
The company line from people working on "West Wing"--which, with 16.9 million viewers Wednesday night, was NBC's best fall drama debut since 1994--is that the show is not aiming to be a prime-time version of life inside the Clinton White House. But the first episode was replete with characters and plot devices--veiled to varying degrees of fictional thinness--that plainly borrow from raw material supplied by the current occupants of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
That, presumably, is intended to be part of the show's appeal, allowing its audience to ponder: Is this what it's really like?
The answer: Kind of. Maybe. If you are willing to overlook a lot.
Or so was the guarded verdict yesterday from a variety of White House officials and reporters who cover the place, many of whom tuned in to monitor "West Wing" for verisimilitude. People looking for exaggerations or plain inventions found many to pounce upon. Yet President Josiah Bartlet's earnest, stumbling, disaster du jour White House has a familiar feel to many.
What series creator Aaron Sporkin has managed to evoke--with a sting--is the Clinton White House of 1993 or 1994. Bartlet's staff is by turns appealingly idealistic and gratingly full of itself. Heartthrob deputy communications director Sam Seaborn, played by Rob Lowe, is at once cocksure and gnawed at by episodic revelations that he is totally winging it.
The Clinton White House of 1999 has been through a lot since the early days, to put it mildly. Most of the original true believers of the 1992 campaign are gone. Today's White House is a middle-age kind of place. It is not run by dewy-eyed children of the campaign, like George Stephanopoulos, but by longtime Washington operatives like Chief of Staff John D. Podesta.
Many White House aides yesterday said the inconsistency they found most jarring was a cosmetic one. The West Wing in "West Wing" is choked with clamoring people dashing this way and that out of offices with windows to the hallway--like a precinct headquarters in a TV cop show. It neither looks nor feels anything like the real West Wing, a more orderly place that hums with a kind of constant, but subdued, energy.
This is not to say that the real West Wing does not, like the fictionalized version, have its share of human conflict.
"The screaming and yelling kind of reminded me of the White House," said Podesta, who is quite often the source of same. He, too, was reminded of a police drama. "It's 'Hill Street Blues' meets the White House." Recalling the catch phrase of that show's Sgt. Esterhaus, Podesta quipped, "In both cases, it pays to be careful out there."
If the set is a weak impersonation, the writers did try to throw in lots of other touches aimed at realism. The staff members prattle on with constant references to "POTUS," an acronym for President of the United States. This affectation, likewise, was more common to the wide-eyed first-term White House than it is now.
The show also captures nicely the all-consuming time demands of White House jobs. Early in the show, the fictional press secretary is explaining to someone at her gym that she manages to have balance in her life--by getting up at 5 a.m. for exercise. The depiction isn't strictly accurate. Real-life White House deputy national security adviser James Steinberg, for instance, gets up at 4 a.m. for jogging in order to be in the office a little after 6.
A number of the plot devices came from the newspaper. President Clinton early on faced a major crisis from Haitian refugees; President Bartlet, played by Martin Sheen, is confronted with an exodus of Cubans. Clinton used to vacation in Jackson Hole, Wyo., and once wrenched his knee on some stairs at the home of golf pro Greg Norman in Florida. In the first episode, Bartlet jammed his leg by riding his bike into a tree . . . on vacation in Jackson Hole.
Many of the "West Wing" characters seem to be not so much directly patterned after real people, as in "Primary Colors," as they are composites of different people. This has sparked something of a parlor game at the White House. There is widespread talk that deputy chief of staff Josh Lyman, who gets in hot water and has to apologize after insulting references to a religious leader's tax problems--is based on real-life political aide Paul Begala, who left the White House this year. Begala once leveled a similar insult at the Rev. Jerry Falwell (although he had to apologize not for that but for insulting the late Sen. Paul Tsongas in 1992).
Lowe is widely assumed to be the Stephanopoulos character. On the other hand, he works as a deputy in the communications office, where deputy press secretary Jake Siewert used to work. Press secretary Joe Lockhart noted that Siewert, like the Lowe character, is a dashing single man. This prompted a sharp disclaimer from Siewert, understandably concerned since Lowe's character in the first episode unintentionally went to bed with a hooker.
While some are worried about unflattering depictions, others are worried that they aren't depicted at all. Steinberg yesterday complained that during the Cuban refugee problem, "it's a little odd that they are trying to figure out what to do without anyone from the NSC there."
The show may become more realistic over time. Sporkin has enlisted various political veterans, including first-term Clinton press secretary Dee Dee Myers, as script consultants. Myers said her role is reviewing plots and saying, "This would happen, that wouldn't happen."
Begala said for all the hollow notes in the debut of "West Wing," he thought the show captured one thing well about life in any White House. All the characters, he said, "all believed in something and they brought a passion to it. That's what I saw every day--and I guarantee people in the Reagan and Bush White Houses would say the same thing."