Claire Handscombe is a graduate student in American University’s creative writing program. She runs the Twitter handle @WWChangedMe and is working on an anthology of essays and interviews with people who have been influenced by “The West Wing.”
‘Are you a Wingnut?” Bradley Whitford asks me over lunch in Pasadena, Calif.
Am I? I love “The West Wing.” Love it more than some people think is reasonable. I have, after all, donated a significant amount of money to charity in order to be sitting here, in this restaurant, having this conversation with this man. But I also want to be known as a discerning, intelligent woman with cultured taste. And “Wingnut,” with its connotations of conservative extremism, seems like the wrong term for fans of a television show that has been accused of idealizing liberal politics.
I don’t remember how I answered his question. I probably said yes. Because it’s hard to argue otherwise. Granted, I don’t wear “West Wing” pins; I don’t make charts to see how often my favorite characters appear in my favorite episodes. My love of “The West Wing” goes deeper than that — the show has changed my life.
Walk with me.
It’s been 15 years since “The West Wing” first graced television screens. In 1999, we were worrying about the Millennium Bug, paying $700 for DVD players and using pagers. Yet the show still feels relevant. There are Twitter accounts posing as the characters, continuing the story line and commenting on current political events. For example, @LeoMcGarry’s account tweeted on Wednesday: “Getting slurred, incoherent phone calls to do with Scotland and the referendum. Someone please confiscate John Marbury’s mobile phone.” Couples have walked down the aisle to the show’s theme music. An iPhone app, pets and even children have been named after the characters. Some fans say that the show has helped them crawl out of depression or that it’s deepened friendships among those who’ve watched it together. Others say it has renewed their political idealism, made them want to debate rather than shout at people with different views or showed them that politics is worth engaging with.
For me, falling in love with the show has meant a career change and a transatlantic move. And it has led me to seek out actors from the show who have had such an impact on me, to thank them. Because of “The West Wing,” I have rediscovered a love of writing and a passion for politics. The show is part of my DNA now, and living in Washington only reinforces this.
In 2008, my friends in London were telling me to watch “The West Wing.” It’s about politics, and you like politics, they’d say. They were right. One day, I borrowed someone’s laptop to watch an episode of “Friends,” and the disc I ejected from it was a “West Wing” DVD. I slipped it back in and gave it a go.
This was really quite something, I thought. This was a show full of attractive men in suits who were articulate and heroic. This was a show that assumed I was intelligent. This was a show that made me laugh and taught me things: that the president of the United States does a weekly radio address; that Nellie Bly pioneered investigative journalism by having herself committed to a mental institution; that all of the Gilbert and Sullivan operas are about duty.
I watched intermittently at first. But when I moved to Belgium and, for a while, lacked a social life, my viewing sped up. Aaron Sorkin’s writing made me fall in love with English. I had written prolifically in my childhood and early teens in French, my first language. But when my mother and I moved to England and my French began to rust, so did my writing. Sorkin showed me that English could be beautiful, too — that French did not have a monopoly on elegance.
“Oratory should raise your heart rate,” White House Deputy Communications Director Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe) says on the show. That was what Sorkin’s words did for me and what I wanted mine to do for others. I wanted to write complex and memorable characters, too. Characters like the one Whitford plays so superbly: Josh Lyman — arrogant, brilliant, deeply wounded. Relationships like the one between him and his assistant, Donna Moss, which kept many viewers hooked.
Eventually, Whitford became a sort of muse. I started writing a novel in which Kate, a character a lot like me, teaches French to someone a little like Whitford, who inspires Kate to move to Washington and go into politics. I fell in love with this fictionalized version of Whitford — a blend of his persona in interviews, the character he played, one of my students and probably Mr. Darcy, because there is always Mr. Darcy, isn’t there? I caught myself dreaming about meeting the real Bradley Whitford and giving him my novel. About writing the screenplay with him. About casting him in the movie. I am, you will by now have gathered, something of a dreamer.
Of course, research dictated that I visit Washington. I first came in the fall of 2009 and headed straight to the Hawk and Dove, the bar where Josh once promised to get Donna drunk during a snowstorm. I heard his voice in my head when I saw the Capitol at night: “You want a piece of me? I’m right here!”
I came back a year later, and the year after that. I sat in classy restaurants and eavesdropped on conversations full of words like “appropriations” and acronyms like “OMB.” I ate at the Oval Room, where one of C.J. Cregg’s potential suitors liked to take her for late dinners. I found Hillyer Place, the street where Donna lived and Josh, Will, Toby, Charlie and Danny threw snowballs at her window. I took pictures of the White House gate that she and Josh walked out of in the episode for which Whitford won his Emmy.
I wanted to live here. So I decided to apply to American University to get a master’s of fine arts in creative writing. I didn’t get in the first time. But would Donna Moss have let that deter her? No, she would not. I worked on my writing, applied again the following year, and on my second try, victory was mine.
In my time at American University, I’ve sat a few feet away from people who could be characters in “The West Wing.” David Plouffe, whose book “The Audacity to Win” I devoured back in Belgium. Stephanie Cutter, whom I think of as the real-life Donna Moss, if the show had extended into Season 14 or 15. Jon Favreau, the young and handsome speechwriter, much like Sam Seaborn. In my first year, I took a political speechwriting class, where my professors told stories that began, “When I was working at the White House . . .” In my second year, I took a class in American political thought and interned for a Democratic member of Congress.
I met Rob Lowe on his first book tour, at a literary festival in Wales. I saw Richard Schiff (a.k.a. Toby Ziegler) and Elisabeth Moss (Zoey Bartlet) in plays in London. And when Stockard Channing (first lady Abbey Bartlet) was in “The Importance of Being Earnest” in Dublin, I went. It was on vacation in Philadelphia that I first met Melissa Fitzgerald, who played C.J.’s assistant, Carol, at the screening of her documentary “After Kony: Staging Hope.”
Since my move to America, I’ve had coffee with Josh Malina (Will Bailey) in Santa Monica, Calif., after I donated to a Kickstarter campaign for a project he was part of. In New York, I saw Dulé Hill (Charlie Young) in a show and stood in icy rain for far too long in the doomed hope of snagging a photo with Mary-Louise Parker (Amy Gardner). And last weekend, I finally got to meet Janel Moloney and Allison Janney at a fundraiser for Justice for Vets, an organization that Fitzgerald directs.
None of that, though, was quite as exciting as the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in 2013. “I’ll pray Bradley Whitford accidentally bumps into you,” a friend texted me. I laughed; I had no such expectations. And yet, I saw him arrive with Matthew Perry, and hours later I had a photograph of us together.
I’d often worried about meeting some of the show’s stars. As much as I wanted to connect with them, thank them and let them know what an important part they had played in my life, I also wanted to keep the ideal of them intact. However, I subscribe to the Donna Moss school of thought on this. “Gather ye rosebuds while you may,” she told Josh in the show’s first season. Mostly, I have not regretted following her advice. Breaking the fourth wall has sometimes been uncomfortable, but usually, it has only increased my affection for the show, which in turn has fed my writing, my passion for politics and my love of Washington.
You might expect, as I sat opposite Whitford in that restaurant, that I was disappointed in some way. That I had a revelation that he was not, in fact, Josh Lyman. Or he was not that interesting. Or fussy about food, impatient to get away, distracted. But no. None of those things are true. He might be the loveliest man I have ever met — and among the smartest, funniest and most well-read.
True, he is not Josh Lyman, but I knew that already. I didn’t want him to be fictional. I wanted him to be real.
And you know what? If Bradley Whitford wants to call me a Wingnut, that is okay with me.