Washington Insiders on TV

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Fred Grandy
Former Republican Congressman from Iowa

A couple of decades ago as I was beginning to make my way in television I tried to peddle an idea around Hollywood for a series that I was convinced would be surefire. A bright, beautiful, and plucky member of the White House Press corps is offered the job of White House Press Secretary by a newly elected president. She takes the job and suddenly finds herself defending the political hi-jinx she has spent most of her professional career trying to expose. Kind of a Mary Tyler Moore meets Sam Donaldson thing. The networks hated it. I was told in no uncertain terms that shows about Washington don't sell.

Six months ago I get a call out of the blue from a very personable gentleman who informs me he is producing a pilot for Nathan Lane about an actor who decides to run for Congress (Where do they come up with these ideas?) I am told this show has an excellent chance of making the fall schedule because shows about Washington are hot. Even if the Lane pilot doesn't make the cut there are currently at least four series on the air which use government, politics, and the media for their story lines. "The West Wing," arguably the mothership for this new fleet of shows, has even hired former Clinton Administration and congressional staffers to provide the proper authenticity for their scripts. They must be doing something right. The show is a huge ratings success, runs the table at the Emmys, and is the darling of the Beltway crowd regardless of political persuasion. I have a friend, a speechwriter for the White House in the early 60s, who loves the program for its unabashed liberal slant and I have conservative chums who use the show to do opposition research. Washington and Hollywood have always enjoyed a clandestine courtship with one another. Now after eight years of the most telegenic and show biz savvy presidential administration in the history of the republic and against the backdrop of cutthroat 24/7 cable news coverage these two power towns are flaunting their romance in public.

But does TV get Washington right? Thanks to my training as a professional politician I can answer unequivocally, yes and no. What shows like "The West Wing" and its imitators delete mercifully is the mind numbing monotony of meetings and subcommittee hearings and briefings and debriefings that constitute 99% of government service. Sure, complicated political issues that may take years to evolve are dispatched in a couple of minutes and current events are frequently reconfigured for theatrical effect. Nothing new about this. William Shakespeare pulled the same stunts in every one of his history plays. Anyone who has ever tried to sit through an entire congressional committee hearing will appreciate this use of dramatic license. One of the truly witty men of Congress, Morris Udall, once remarked after a long and particularly lugubrious meeting, "Well, Mr. Chairman, everything on this subject has been said, but not everyone has said it yet."

What shows like "The West Wing" get right far outweighs whatever wrongs they might commit in accuracy or verisimilitude. It is impossible to watch an episode without sensing a genuine passion for public service among the characters in that mythical White House. Almost any think tank in Washington will tell you that passion is presently in short supply in the real world. The ranks of talented individuals choosing government service as a career has been in steady decline for several years now. "West Wing" is not shy about revealing the dark underbelly of American politics. But neither does it retreat from that now almost archaic notion that government can be a positive force in people's lives. Whether the show is actually inspiring individuals to enter public service, I don't know. But every now and again I'll see something in a scene that reminds me why I wanted be a United States Congressman and not just play one on TV.

Mike McCurry
Former Clinton press secretary

I have this thing for C.J., the "West Wing" press secretary, that makes me hit my getting-greyer head and say, "I should have said it that way." But it can't just be those of us with real-life experience watching as our Hollywood counterparts get the upper hand that's made these shows successful. Something is slowly changing the way our popular culture portrays those who choose public service as careers, and I think it's for the better. Only a few years ago, the government worker was, typically, the bumbling postal work Cliff on "Cheers." The elected official was usually some sinister guy in a black limousine with helicopters in the desert ready to subvert the Constitution. Buffoons or creeps, but nothing very attractive.

Now TV shows us real people facing the dilemmas of conscience and the realities of politics that ring very true to those of us who have been there. (Though not even in President Clinton's White House did that many hip-looking young people wander around aimlessly in the West Wing!) Maybe our entertainment is doing what journalism often fails to do: give us positive stories about folks who try hard to get it right and who serve us a lot better than conventional wisdom would have it. If so, maybe the audience is saying we are hoping for better from both those who hold the public trust and those who portray it — in the headlines and on the screen.

Bob Kerrey
President, New School University
Former Democratic Senator from Nebraska

Good television must entertain as it informs. Thus, fastidiously measuring such shows as "The West Wing" against reality is a more suitable exercise for the obsessive-compulsive than it is for citizens trying to determine if it bears any relationship to reality. In my view "The West Wing" treats its topics in a serious and responsible manner. It fairly captures the mood and drama of political decision-making. The show thoroughly explores both sides of issues ripped from current news, and still manages to keep Americans paying attention.

If, as seems likely, even a small percentage of viewers are stimulated to spend a little more time listening to the taped conversations of President Lyndon Johnson or the writings of presidential historians, then shows like "The West Wing" can lay claim to improving the quality of democracy even as they make money. If, on the other hand, viewers conclude that politics is identical to the scenes of President Jed Bartlett fighting for everything a majority of Americans desire, or that it is just a simple matter of appearing to be neither too liberal nor too conservative, then they will be bitterly disappointed when they turn from viewing to participating. "The West Wing"'s President Bartlett is a protector of the environment, but not at the expense of American jobs. He is no friend of the NRA, but he is tough on crime. He is a fundraiser, but he painlessly adheres to the letter of the campaign finance law. And when he commits U.S. forces abroad, you can be sure it is not only the right thing to do, but victory will be swift. Such win-win situations are sometimes available to citizens in a democracy. But just as often, they're not.

No commercial television show can possibly present this case, just as it cannot possibly show us the weight or the round the clock nature of the responsibility upon those in power. If actor Rob Lowe really were a key domestic policy adviser to the President, he would have dark circles under his eyes, and worry lines. But who wants to see that? The thoughtful debate on current issues by a well-rested and talented cast is why we tune in.