You Could Call It the Wonk Wing

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When the staff and actors of The West Wing TV show mingled with the staff of the real West Wing at last month's White House correspondents' dinner, it wasn't all just idle chatter. For instance, Gene Sperling, head of the National Economic Council and Washington's uber-wonk, sought out executive story editor Lawrence O'Donnell to talk about an episode involving the Federal Reserve chairman. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright marched up to Patrick Caddell, once the right hand of Jimmy Carter and now a consultant for the show, and told him how much she liked the India-Pakistan episode. "She said it was one of the best expositions on foreign policy on TV that she'd seen," recalls Caddell.

As the NBC ensemble drama heads to its season finale next week (Wednesday, 9 p.m. E.T.), creator and writer Aaron Sorkin has proved that dealing with public policy doesn't mean ratings hell. The characters--President Josiah Bartlet, a liberal Democrat played by Martin Sheen; chief of staff Leo McGarry, played by John Spencer; and a clutch of earnest young staff members--have wrestled with school vouchers, the Pentagon's "Don't ask, don't tell" policy on gays, even the debate over using statistical sampling to improve the Census. "Make the Census interesting, who'd have thought?" says (real) White House spokesman Joe Lockhart. The West Wing has become our national civics lesson.

Not only are the program's wrangles topical, but they also hew closely to the actual debates in Washington instead of giving us Hollywood's usual cartoon version. That's not out of civic obligation, the showmen insist, it's just that reality is entertaining. "The farther you get away from the truth of those debates, the softer the drama is going to be," says Sorkin, who also created and writes the ABC series Sports Night. For a political edge, he relies on consultants like Caddell and former Clinton press secretary Dee Dee Myers, who describes Sorkin's approach as "Give me a really boring issue and let's have a fight about it." But, notes O'Donnell, because the scenes work only if the audience understands the conflict, "you get a better chance to hear each side of the argument than you do on most political argument shows." O'Donnell should know: he's a former Senate staff member, currently a regular on The McLaughlin Group.

In the capital last week for final outdoor shooting, the cast took a victory lap around town that tangled the lines between fiction and reality. They went to the White House to have their pictures taken with their real-life counterparts, stopped at the New York Times's Washington bureau, and Allison Janney, the 6-ft. actress who plays press secretary C.J. Cregg, stood on the podium to open Lockhart's midday briefing. The show even got a validating blast from Republican House leader Tom DeLay, who--while admitting he's never watched it--declared it displays "disdain for [religious] faith." A cheap shot, ripostes Sorkin, about a violence-free series that idealizes public service.

Except at the DeLay residence, though, the show has become a D.C. mainstay. Last week when Bradley Whitford, who plays deputy chief of staff Josh Lyman, was having lunch on Capitol Hill with an old friend, half a dozen lobbyists stopped by to drop off business cards and offer ideas for future plot lines that favor their clients. The staff of Michigan Representative John Conyers helpfully sent along 200 pages of material on the issue of paying reparations to black Americans as compensation for slavery--a topic that figured in an earlier episode.

The life-imitates-art moments have become more commonplace. Last month, while sitting in the Oval Office monitoring a briefing session with Clinton and his Mideast advisers, chief of staff John Podesta jokingly slipped a note to Lockhart that read, "If this were West Wing, C.J. wouldn't be at this meeting." NBC has realized that the show's verisimilitude can pay off. Because of its edu-content, teachers have given the show high marks, and NBC has distributed West Wing study guides to high schools. Sorkin says he's already looking to hire some conservatives--to give the scripts an even sharper edge and not, he insists, to deflect fire from right-wing critics. Still, if the real White House should change parties in January, it couldn't hurt to have card-carrying Republicans on the staff. That too is reality.