INSIDE THE WEST WING.

Author:Seelye, Katharine Q.
Position::How TV program compares to reality
 
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AGAINST A BACKDROP OF HORSE-TRADING AND HARDBALL, A POPULAR TV SHOW OFFERS A LOOK AT HOW GOVERNMENT AND POLITICS REALLY WORK.

EVERYTHING SAYS POWER. THE CAMERAS STAND READY. TOP-LEVEL AIDES scurry to and fro with the latest version of the President's speech. With U.S. warplanes on their way back from a bombing run, the President is about to go on television to tell the nation about their mission. The press secretary wants to make sure he has reviewed all the available information. But the President is distracted. He can't find his reading glasses.

The Oval Office in Washington, D.C.? No, it's a Hollywood sound stage for The West Wing, the critically-acclaimed TV drama that takes its name from the White House offices where the weighty work of the presidency gets done.

West Wing plots are the stuff of headlines: debates over school prayer, the death penalty, and campaign finance reform, and sudden crises like the downing of a U.S. plane over foreign territory. The show gives viewers the impression that they are eavesdropping in the corridors of history. And in a way, they are.

"The show really has struck a chord for a lot of people," says Gene Sperling, a former economic adviser to President Bill Clinton and now a consultant to the series. "Maybe because it brings you inside this decision-making process, so a viewer can say, `What would I do?'"

In the real West Wing, decisions that affect the lives of 280 million Americans are made every hour by staffers who serve the President. The offices are shrouded in secrecy. Each week, The West Wing lifts the veil and gives Americans a fictional peek inside. But is it an accurate peek?

Yes, in many ways, say those who have worked in the actual West Wing. The real thing "is a lot like what it seems like on the show," says Dee Dee Myers, who served as White House press secretary to Clinton and is now another West Wing consultant. "The day moves fast, information moves fast. There's always 18 things going on that have no relation to one another. You never know what's around the next bend. It's exhausting. It can be frustrating."

APPLAUSE FROM BOTH SIDES

The fictional White House is Democratic, patterned loosely after Clinton's. Yet even now, under the Republican administration of President George W. Bush, there are still parallels with reality.

"The show does a remarkable job of capturing the presidency in terms of staff people who like each other and are trying to do the right thing," says Marlin Fitzwater, a West Wing consultant who was press secretary to two Republican Presidents, Ronald Reagan and the elder George Bush. "That's the White House I knew and loved."

What is it about The West Wing that has members of both parties singing the same tune? Political insiders say the series offers one of the best lessons available in how government and politics really work. It reveals the horse-trading between Congress and the White House and the compromises that must be struck for any policy to move forward. It shows that the presidency is more than just the President, and how his words and actions are actually the result of painstaking work by a team of top-level assistants. And the show examines the moral dilemmas of those people laboring day to day, sometimes in relative obscurity, under extraordinary pressures.

As depicted by the writers of The West Wing, government is often a messy business. "There are two things in the world you never want people to see how you made them: laws and sausages," says the fictional Leo McGarry, the President's chief of staff, played by John Spencer.

That is what politics and The West Wing are really about: drafting bills and promoting policies that must win approval in both houses of Congress as well as the White House, or they go nowhere. This means that virtually every decision that emerges from the real West Wing (and...

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