Washington Casts an Eye on Hollywood


In a converted apartment house on the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank, writers for "The West Wing" are busy hatching the third-season opener, where President Jeb Bartlet announces from the steps of the New Hampshire statehouse that he is seeking a second term.

They need a subplot; under consideration is the approval of the abortion pill RU-486, which most of them know next to nothing about. So they have summoned on a conference call President Clinton's former top economic advisor, Gene Sperling, who is telling them everything he knows about the morning-after pill--not to mention living the fantasy of political operatives all over Washington.

"There is a fever in Washington among people who believe there may be a chance for a second career in television via 'The West Wing,"' said Lawrence O'Donnell, a former Senate aide who became a producer of the show and recently left to create his own Washington-based series.

Something approaching glamour has attached itself to the marbled city. For the first time in anyone's memory, television is making Washington look interesting, and series creator Aaron Sorkin has hired--at about $30,000 a season--half a dozen political insiders from every administration since Jimmy Carter's.

A stack of resumes from displaced Clintonites sits in Sorkin's office, unread. Rep. David Dreier, a San Dimas Republican and head of the powerful House Rules Committee, is waiting to be asked to make a cameo appearance.

And somewhere in Los Angeles, a presidential historian who e-mailed Sorkin and couldn't get the time of day is banging out a pilot of his own about the private lives of political people. ("It was like e-mailing into this black hole. Why should I give away my ideas for free?" grumbled the Washington insider, electing to remain anonymous pending a deal that could land him in show business.)

Over the years, actors and sports legends have moved from screen and stadium to the political arena. George Murphy went from song-and-dance man to U.S. senator from California, paving the way for Ronald Reagan's leapfrog from "Bedtime for Bonzo" to the statehouse to the White House. Warren Beatty revealed utterly without embarrassment that he would like to be president. Arnold Schwarzenegger recently allowed his name to be bandied about as a potential Republican challenger to Gov. Gray Davis. And Maryland Republicans are wondering aloud about Orioles star Cal Ripken's gubernatorial prospects.

But in a reversal of course, political veterans are casting an eye toward Hollywood, where the producers of a show about a liberal Democratic White House with a disease-concealing president considers policy expertise hot property. Of particular value are viewpoints that run counter to Hollywood's long-standing liberal shibboleths.

"If in the script there is an argument about gun control, the most precious document you could produce at 'The West Wing' that week is a passionate, intelligent case against gun control. We know how to do the other one," said O'Donnell, whose resume includes a stint as Democratic staff director for the Senate Finance Committee.

Obscure details that help give the show its verisimilitude--from the financial disclosure statements the president fills out to the color of the seats on Air Force One --come from a stable of campaign veterans, including Peggy Noonan, speechwriter for Ronald Reagan; Marlin Fitzwater, press secretary for the elder President Bush; former Carter pollster Pat Caddell; and ex-Clinton press secretary Dee Dee Myers.

In two seasons of 44 episodes, Sorkin has given a TV face lift to a city often portrayed as a sinkhole of incompetence, ambition and greed. For many inside the Beltway, it is a mirror that takes 10 pounds off--it's them, but better. The characters are wittier, quicker, more beautiful. The clothes are stylish, the haircuts hip. The motivation is sincere, the speeches--incredibly--short and sweet.

"If there is someone like those characters in Washington, I'd like to meet them," said Margaret Cone, a lobbyist for the Writers Guild. "All of that witty repartee. People in Washington are too stressed out to be witty."

Those glowing portrayals, combined with stellar ratings, have made Hollywood more likeable to some in Washington, even if the feeling isn't always mutual. (In a recent outburst, actor Martin Sheen--a.k.a. President Bartlet--called President Bush "a moron"; the cast got invited to the White House just the same.)

"I do think 'The West Wing' is the only program in my memory that deals with pols as people motivated by a desire to do something other than scalp the public," said Gene Smith, chief of staff for Rep. Howard Berman (D-Mission Hills).

Rich Mills, spokesman for U.S. Trade Representative Robert B. Zoellick, rejoiced last season when TV press secretary Toby Ziegler gave anti-trade protesters an earful.

"I was pumped," Mills said. When the rerun aired, he watched the episode again.

Indeed, some consider it a greater victory to get an issue discussed for 90 seconds on "The West Wing" than to score 20 minutes on a Sunday morning talk show.

"Oh, 'West Wing,' absolutely," Dreier, a ubiquitous talking head, concluded when asked which television venue he preferred: "The Sam and Cokie, 'Meet the Press' audience is the audience I have access to and can usually get to. But 'The West Wing' audience is larger and clearly more diverse."

Some view the show as a political science lesson that plays as well in Peoria as on the Potomac.

Brill's Content magazine applauded it for doing a better job explaining the decennial census than did the news department at NBC. All to the delight of spinmeisters who see a third season as another opportunity to reach the masses.

"Which is why the writers need to be careful," said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a USC instructor who makes the show required viewing for her film and politics class. "Whether or not you agree with the policy stands, they need to ring true because people will accept them."

Inevitably, the show's success has created potential for other Washington-based series. Two Supreme Court shows are in the works as possible midseason replacements and former Supreme Court clerks are currently in demand, O'Donnell said.

Still, O'Donnell estimated the chance of Washington insiders breaking into show business is roughly equivalent to landing a seat on the space shuttle.

And for public servants dreaming of a house in Malibu and a career in Hollywood, Sorkin had this advice: "I would prefer qualified people stay in government. I think it's where they are most needed."

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