'West Wing' Writers' Novel Way of Picking the President
Image is in installguide/articlepics/westleo.bmp
By Jacques Steinberg
Published: April 10, 2006
Like many political campaigns, the presidential election depicted last night on "The West Wing" on NBC would have had a
different ending had it been held four months ago.
John Spencer, who played Leo McGarry, died in December.
But the reversal of fortune for Matt Santos — the Democratic nominee, played by Jimmy Smits, who was the victor —
had nothing to do with any shift in opinion among voters.
Instead, Lawrence O'Donnell, an executive producer of the show, said he and his fellow writers had declared Santos the
winner only after the death, in mid-December, of John Spencer, who portrayed Santos's running mate, Leo McGarry. At the time
of Mr. Spencer's death, the plot for last night's episode had been set: the election was to be won by Alan Alda's Arnold Vinick,
a maverick Republican (modeled a bit on Senator John McCain), whom many Democrats (including the Democrats who write the show)
could learn to love.
But after Mr. Spencer died, Mr. O'Donnell said in a recent interview, he and his colleagues began to confront a creative
dilemma: would viewers be saddened to see Mr. Smits's character lose both his running mate and the election? The writers decided
that such an outcome would prove too lopsided, in terms of taxing viewers' emotions, so a script with the new, bittersweet
ending — including the election-night death of Mr. Spencer's character — was undertaken by John Wells, executive
producer of "The West Wing" and "E.R."
The loss of Mr. Spencer, who had been on "The West Wing" since its inception seven years ago, imposed a layer of grief
on the sadness and nostalgia the cast would feel in the weeks leading to the final day of production. NBC announced in January
that primarily because of falling ratings, it was not renewing the series for next season.
The final episode of "The West Wing" is not be broadcast until May 14, but the show effectively ended for Martin Sheen,
who plays President Bartlet, and for his fellow cast members on March 31, when they filmed their last scene together. Appropriately,
it shows the president striding around the White House for final goodbyes to the applause of his staff members, in a scene
filmed on the Warner Brothers lot in Burbank, Calif.
An impromptu cast party followed shortly thereafter in and around the trailer of Allison Janney, who plays Bartlet's chief
of staff, C. J. Cregg, said Bradley Whitford, who portrays Josh Lyman, most recently manager of the Santos campaign.
"This show is probably the first line in my obituary," Mr. Whitford said. "Everyone knows they got lucky with this one."
For a series that sought to provide a backstage glimpse of White House politics, however stylized and idealized, it seems
appropriate to assess its legacy, political and otherwise, as its conclusion nears.
On that score, Mr. Sheen was offered an opportunity to see how his character's appeal would play in a real-life campaign.
Not long ago, he said, he was approached by Democratic Party representatives from his native state, Ohio, to see if he would
be interested in running for the United States Senate after he left the show. Though he would have had little trouble drafting
a campaign platform — he is a fierce opponent of nuclear power and the war in Iraq, and a champion of human rights —
he turned them down.
"I'm just not qualified," he said. "You're mistaking celebrity for credibility."
Nonetheless, Mr. O'Donnell, a onetime adviser to Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York, said he was especially
proud of the show's response to the increasingly shrill political debate in the real world, particularly on cable news. As
it became tougher to learn much of any substance from programs like "Crossfire" on CNN, now defunct, "The West Wing" seemed
to delve deeper into real issues like health care and education, as exemplified by the raw, one-hour live debate last fall
between Matt Santos and Arnold Vinick.
"Political talk on TV has degenerated so much," said Mr. O'Donnell, who is also a political analyst on MSNBC. "You can
say something complex on 'The West Wing' and you will not suffer a screaming interruption by three other panelists."
It may not come as any surprise to viewers, given that President Bartlet was a Democrat, but there were no registered Republicans
in the most recent incarnation of the "West Wing" writers' room, which included Eli Attie, a former speechwriter for Al Gore.
Though the show began at the end of the Clinton administration, it soon found its creative niche by evoking a parallel reality,
one that imagined how the White House might have been different if George W. Bush had not been elected to two terms.
As the war in Iraq escalated, Mr. Sheen said he came to liken the show's role to that of good, escapist fiction.
"In order to sometimes get a different perspective on what's going down in the world, to reach back to your humanity, you
read novels," Mr. Sheen said. "We're like the reading of a novel."
Which is not to say that President Bartlet escaped making some of the hard decisions that President Bush faced in real
life. This year, Bartlet was shown agonizing over whether to commit 10,000 American troops to an escalating, fictional conflict
on the border shared by Russia, Kazakhstan and China.
In deciding to put flesh on a Republican like Mr. Alda's Arnold Vinick and committing, at least initially, to having him
win, Mr. O'Donnell said he and the other writers had delighted in playing against type. And then Mr. Spencer died.
Other than a coming episode that will linger at the funeral for Mr. Spencer's character — and include, as mourners,
a parade of former cast members, including Rob Lowe — the show's final episodes will be devoted to the transition from
the Bartlet administration to that of President-elect Santos.
The actors and producers are embarking on a similar transition.
Mr. Whitford has signed on to star in "Studio 60," a one-hour drama expected to be on the NBC schedule next fall, about
life backstage at a live variety show. It was created by Aaron Sorkin, who created "The West Wing."
Mr. O'Donnell has deliberately put off finding his next project, to savor the last days of editing "The West Wing," though
he can currently be seen in a rare acting role, as a lawyer for the polygamist main character on the HBO drama "Big Love."
And Mr. Sheen?
At 65, he has decided to make good on a promise he made to himself long ago: to enroll, for the first time, in college.
A graduate, though just barely, of Chaminade High School in Dayton, Ohio, nearly five decades ago, he will began taking classes
next fall — in English literature, philosophy and, he hopes, oceanography — at National University of Ireland
in Galway, in the country where his mother was born.
In describing how much he relished retreating to an ivory tower, Mr. Sheen sounded a lot like a former president after
two terms in office, even if he was a former president whose biggest challenge was commuting to a fictional White House.
"I'd be up at 4 in the morning, and out of the house by 5 to get on the freeway, all so we could start at 7 o'clock," he
said. "That's a lot of wear and tear on your body."