THE TWO WEST WINGS.
THE WEST WING IS UNDERGOING RENOVATIONS. Gone is the Clinton administration, which brought an unprecedented number of openly gay and lesbian staffers into the White House. Gone is the hope of a Gore administration--and Al Gore's promise to undo one of Clinton's compromises on gay issues, the "don't ask, don't tell" policy that keeps military gays closeted. *** Instead, President George W. Bush is settling into the Oval Office. And it appears that all this president's men aren't eager to pick up the gay cause. In the campaign and even in his cabinet choices--passing over antigay former senator Dan Coats for Defense secretary, reportedly in part to avoid stirring up another brouhaha over gays in the military--Bush has provided ample evidence that if he can get away with simply ignoring gay issues, he will.
"I think it's going to be an administration of silence--you just won't hear about gay issues," predicts Julian Potter, the last liaison to gays and lesbians for the Clinton administration. "They'll be polite. They won't say anything bad. But I don't think there'll be any forward movement on the federal issues we've been working on."
In addition to silencing the military, "don't ask, don't tell" could well be elevated to the level of national policy on all matters queer.
But there is still one voice in the White House that refuses to be silenced: It belongs to President Josiah Bartlet, the proudly liberal Democrat who presides each Wednesday evening over NBC's The West Wing. Within the bustling corridors of Bartlet's West Wing--"Not even in Bill Clinton's White House were that many people wandering around aimlessly," chuckles former Clinton press secretary Mike McCurry, who counts himself among the many fans of the series--gay issues are openly debated and fiercely engaged. Consider just a few examples:
* Bartlet, played by the equally outspoken Martin Sheen, squares off against a gay Hollywood campaign contributor (Bob Balaban), who demands that the president condemn a new bill that would drum gays out of the military. Convinced it will never come to the floor, the realpolitik president refuses to address the bill publicly, thundering, "The worst thing that could possibly happen to gay rights in this country is to put that thing on the debating table."
* In an episode directed by Advocate columnist Paris Barclay, Bartlet faces a bill that would ban same-sex marriage. "It's legislative gay bashing," Bartlet fumes. "How do I put my name to it?" He kills it with a pocket veto.
* In one of the show's most satisfying art-imitating-life moments, Bartlet interrupts a reception of radio talk-show hosts to deliver a stern dressing-down to a Dr. Laura stand-in: "You might be mistaking this for your monthly meeting of the ignorant tight-ass club."
The West Wing may be only a TV show, but it's not just any TV show. In a time when politics often plays out in the media as entertainment--whether the soap opera of the Lewinsky affair or the cliff-hanger of the Florida recount--The West Wing has developed into an entertainment that, at its best, shows more political savvy than most of TV's windy pundits. Because of that, its political impact could increase during the G.W. era.
The show's popularity will help. In just its second year, it has already won nine Emmys, including Outstanding Drama Series, and it has taken up regular residence in the Nielsen ratings' top 10. With more than 18 million viewers a week, Bartlet and company reach more Americans than any regularly scheduled news broadcast.
As its viewership has grown, The West Wing has developed a political voice all its own. Created by screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (A Few Good Men, The American President [see interview]), it played, until last month's inauguration, as a cleverly constructed parallel administration, commenting on--and sometimes correcting--the Clinton administration's policies. Now that Bush has taken over, the Bartlet White House could well emerge as a sort of shadow government, its progressive responses to current issues giving voice to arguments and concerns that the other West Wing's new tenants might otherwise ignore.
"Dramatically, I always thought it would be better for the show if there were Republicans in [office]," says Rob Lowe, who plays deputy communications director Sam Seaborn on The West Wing. "A Republican administration could ignite the show. Without Bill Clinton, Rush Limbaugh would be playing on five stations."
So far, The West Wing hasn't needed any provocation to tackle queer topics. "If there's a struggle forming on the show, it isn't finding gay and lesbian issues to write about," Sorkin says. "It's saying, `Gee, I've done it four times in the last six episodes, let me back off for a couple, and then I'm going to go to this one I want to do.'"
No one expects the Bush administration to address gay questions with similar gusto. As she was closing out her White House files in January for transfer to the U.S. Archives, Potter observed, "Bush [has] said that he would eliminate this office, so I doubt anyone will be requesting any of these files any time soon."
Even if Bush avoids bashing gay causes, the new administration could still turn back gay rights advances made under Clinton, observes Marty Rouse, a gay Clinton appointee to the department of Health and Human Services. "Outside the Beltway, many Americans won't notice much change," he says. "But most people don't realize how the federal government works. A lesbian may find herself getting more sensitive health care because someone in our department [championed] cultural sensitivity training. If the media and if the mainstream lesbian and gay organizations just focus on the big, sexy issues--how many openly gay appointees there are, executive orders, ENDA [the Employment Non-Discrimination Act]--what we're going to lose is what's going on in the bowels of government, where we've slowly but surely been moving the ship around."
Exposing exactly that kind of behind-the-scenes policy making is The West Wing's forte. And what gives the wonk talk a dramatic urgency is the youthful energy that's part of the fabric of the show, according to Thomas Schlamme, who produces the show along with Sorkin and ER veteran John Wells. "The core of what Aaron is writing could apply to any administration, but what we took from both the Kennedy and the Clinton administrations is that the men and women working for the president could be youthful--not just older white men," Schlamme says. "An American public that already knew George Stephanopoulos, James Carville, and Dee Dee Myers could accept a cast like Rob Lowe and Bradley Whitford and Allison Janney working for the president."
Now a lot of those older white men are heading back to D.C. "Washington is going to see a huge cultural shift," observes Richard Socarides, who spent seven years in the Clinton White House and was Potter's predecessor as gay liaison. Still, Socarides holds out hope that the Bush troops won't march entirely backward. "Obviously, you won't see as many openly gay people, but they may be looking to put some gay Republicans on the White House staff," he says. "The world has changed in the past eight years, and life around the Bush White House may be different than it was around his father's--even if, on policy issues, they don't support issues at the core of gay civil rights."
Jeff Bissiri, past president of the gay group Log Cabin Republicans' Los Angeles chapter and an alternate delegate to last year's Republican National convention, goes a step further. "My biggest expectation and hope for Bush is that he is going to change the tone of the party. Instead of Dick Armey and Trent Lott calling the shots, he'll be in charge, and he's certainly fair-minded. There are openly gay people on the transition team, and they've approached members of Log Cabin, who've submitted resumes. I think we're going to get some things even if we lose others."
"The temptation will be to view the Bush administration as a real setback for gay and lesbian rights," says McCurry, now CEO of Grassroots.com. "Look, I'll try to be generous here: I applaud the way Bush has put together a diverse cabinet, and I think he struggled with the episode [during the campaign] with the Log Cabin Republicans [with whom he met after initial refusals]. I hope that open-mindedness prevails over narrow-mindedness. With Clinton as president, gays and lesbians had high expectations, and he sometimes came up short. With Bush, there are certainly low expectations, but maybe we'll be pleasantly surprised."
However Bush's West Wing shapes up, NBC's already has more Republicans on staff. For the show's second season, which began in October, the producers enlisted Marlin Fitzwater and Peggy Noonan, veterans of the Reagan White House, to serve as consultants, balancing a staff that already included Democratic stalwarts such as Myers and Patrick Caddell. "We didn't [hire] Republican consultants because someone here said, `Gee, what if Bush gets elected?' I wish we had that crystal ball," says Schlamme. "We just wanted to add Republican voices to give our arguments real validity, not because our president is going to become a little more right-wing."
Sorkin himself denies using Bartlet, a sometimes embattled liberal with a penchant for waxing poetic about national parks, as a personal soapbox. "The way to make it real and the way to make it compelling is to give real full-throated arguments to the issues," he says. "That may create the impression that I have a political agenda when, in fact, all I want is to create great arguments and for my characters to have strong positions."
For example, Schlamme offers, he raised the question of gay Republicans with Sorkin earlier this year, saying, "I just don't understand them. It makes no sense to me--let's try to give a voice to that." The result: A long night's debate between Bartlet's deputy chief of staff, Josh Lyman (Whitford), and a gay Republican congressman (Charley Lang) who was seeking support for the fictional antigay Marriage Recognition Act. The congressman justified his position by insisting, "My life doesn't have to be about being a homosexual--it doesn't have to be entirely about that."
Could Bush's occupancy of the real-life West Wing give the show an even bigger role in the public debate on such confrontational topics? "Maybe there will be Democrats who tune in for an hour of escape, but I don't think the show's mission changes," suggests Myers. "First and foremost, it's a good office drama."
But as a former Clinton press secretary, Myers can also attest to the influence pop culture now has on the political sphere. "Pop culture is a pretty good barometer of what resonates with the people," she says. "When you tune in to Jay Leno and hear a joke about Clinton getting a haircut on the tarmac, you know that isn't good."
The West Wing barometer seems set to issue alternative political forecasts for some time to come. The series has its own internal time frame: In the middle of his first administration, Bartlet has just weathered his first midterm election--his party failed to pick up seats--and now reelection strategies are beginning to emerge. "It may seem the president is moving toward the center because that happens in election years, but we're not moving to the center because George Bush is president of the United States," insists Schlamme. "We're going to see a left-wing senator who's beginning to raise his voice as a third-party candidate, and by this season's finale we'll finally find out who Bartlet defeated on his way to the White House. Will the show be perceived differently now that there is a different administration in office? I don't have an answer to that."
As long as The West Wing is around, though, gays and lesbians can take comfort that their concerns--however they fare in the real D.C.--will continue to find a very public forum for debate. And whether members of the Bush administration set their VCRs for Wednesday night at 9, they should be prepared for that other chief executive to stand his ground. Sorkin himself defers to his President Bartlet: "I know that when Martin Sheen was asked the question `What will happen to the show if Bush is elected president?' Martin's answer was, `Well, I certainly hope we'll be an ungodly pain in the ass.'"
For more of The Advocate's interview with Aaron Sorkin and links to related Web sites, go to www.advocate.com
RELATED ARTICLE: A FEW GOOD STORIES
Aaron Sorkin, creator of The West Wing talks to director PARIS BARCLAY about the battle between politics and drama--and gays in the Bartlet White House
AARON SORKIN'S OFFICE is not far from my own on the Warner Bros. lot, and whenever I stop by, I think, Man, his office is really nice. Not big, but a comfortable writer's den: booky and woody and leathery--with a Macintosh G4 atop his desk. I'm jealous. He gets to write the best show on television, week in and week out. Oh, well ... On this visit, Sorkin comes in, warm and upbeat as always, and although I know he's facing a deadline for the current episode, he doesn't act like it. He's comfortable and casual and pleases me to no end by actually smoking throughout the interview (I happen to be a junkie for secondhand smoke). Where there's smoke, there's fire. Fire away, Aaron!
BARCLAY: Here's my theory on The West Wing: I see it functioning as what I call the voice of the loyal opposition, which is people who are patriotic but believe that there are different ways of looking at issues, and giving them a voice. The same way Norman Lear's shows were the voice of the loyal opposition during Nixon and Ford.
SORKIN: That's a good point. I like thinking of it as loyal opposition even when there was a Democrat in the White House. Weak-willed Democrats have been the enemy just as much as the Republicans have been the enemy on this show. If there's an enemy on this show, it's a lack of conviction, a lack of compassion. We can keep that up no matter who is in office.
Do you think you might actually have a real political voice, though? Because All in the Family and even Steven Bochco's shows had a real influence on public policy and issues of importance to the country.
The reason I'm uncomfortable answering that question is, it feels like something out of my depth. I'm a fiction writer and a scriptwriter. We're telling stories inside the White House because the best stories I can think of to tell are the ones that center around so many of these issues.
What inspired you to deal with so many provocative gay issues, mere than any other drama on television?
Gay issues don't seem abstract to me. These are my friends and the people I work with every day. It seems like we have entered a time when gay bashing seems OK. Non one can be allowed to be put down as the result of fear and ignorance. That really needs to be called out, [particularly] when congressional leaders make the kind of preposterous misstatements they've made about homosexuality. If they made similar statements about Jews or blacks, the sky would fall down.
Even shows not specifically about gay people can speak to your gay viewers. For a lot of gay people, your show on African AIDS and the drug companies was a wonderful way to talk about the government's response to the disease, internally and externally. Absolutely. And with AIDS in Africa you have the added insult of "If it's just Africans, what do we care?" In that episode someone even said, "If it was 25 million Europeans, we [would have] found a cure yesterday."
In creating The West Wing, you've probably thought about putting a gay person in the administration ... How do you know I haven't? Yeah, I would like to have a gay character on the show whose sexual orientation is what we all want our sexual orientations to be: a personal matter of privacy. I think one of the better things I can do for everybody is just keep showing how we're all the same.
We gotta talk about the Dr. Laura scene [in which Bartlet berates an antigay talk-radio host]. That was so popular with gay viewers. I'm glad. To me, she is a horrifyingly, staggeringly mean and ignorant person. Listen, I don't want to pretend that I'm not passionate about this stuff. It's great when you can catch ahold of one and really feel like, Gee, my blood is in this too.
The Republican voice that you brought on this season--is that something you want to keep doing? For the sake of drama, you want two strong arguments. My favorite moments in arguing are the "God, I never realty thought of it that way" kinds of moments. [But] I don't think that it's my responsibility to achieve political balance on the show. I'm not a journalist. My responsibility isn't to the truth, it's the drama. On the other hand, the best drama is going to be created by two strong arguments. It's not likely you're going to hear a strong pro-life argument on the show. I have trouble getting to it; I really do. Here's what you'll hear on the show: Not everybody who disagrees with you is bad. Not everybody who isn't a liberal Democrat is mean or greedy or both.
Any last words?
I'd give anything to be a lesbian.
RELATED ARTICLE: A WOMAN OF INFLUENCE
BY PARIS BARCLAY
A candid conference with Allison Janney, The West Wing's press secretary, C.J. Gregg
BARCLAY: Are you aware of how many gay women admire your character?
JANNEY: It's not just lesbians. I think all women love C.J. because she's a woman in power and she's strong and sexy and still a woman.
And she wears great clothes.
And she wears great clothes.
Whom do you think you're patterned after? Are you [original Clinton press secretary] Dee Dee Myers meets Katharine Hepburn?
I love that. I think it's Dee Dee Myers meets Rosalind Russell, maybe with a little Eve Arden thrown in there. Maybe some Maude.
Of the stories that have been told on The West Wing that deal with gay issues, has there been one that touched you?
Well, actually there have been a couple. But the main one was the storyline that was similar to the Matthew Shepard incident. It touched me emotionally on many different levels because of the horrendous, horrible thing that happened--the actual act of what happened--and then the perception of the president [on the show] and of the people around him, who were assuming that the father's silence was because he was ashamed that his son was gay. C.J.'s instincts were that the father has just lost his son and he's speechless. It turns out that C.J.'s instincts are right--the father is incredibly upset. But he's also furious at the president for not standing up for his son's rights and that the president doesn't consider his son fit to serve to fight for his country because he was gay. C.J., of course, wanted [the father] to be there at the signing of the hate-crimes bill for public relations reasons, but he couldn't, because he was angry with the president. It was a great example of the conflicts that people must feel in the White House, having to let politics get in the way of what seems right.
We're trying to figure out how Aaron Sorkin can write so many different perspectives, including gay people, so well. You've been working with him for a couple of years--can you give us any clue?
He's the most interesting person I think I've ever not known. It would be fun to be a fly on the wall in his writing room, because I know the rhythms that he writes in are so specific--I know that he says them out loud and figures out how it comes out of your mouth. Every word is thought out, every "uh" is there for a reason, every "and, if, but." I don't know--I guess it's just incredible intelligence.
How do you feel when people say, "Allison Janney--she's so fabulous, she must be gay"?
Oh, that's a compliment, I think. I love that. I'm very flattered. A lot of people think I'm gay, because I'm tall and I'm not married. I think the Star said I was gay because I was dancing with Ellen DeGeneres at a party, which I was. I had the best time dancing with her. Whatever. They can think whatever they want. I'm, you know, a sexual woman.
And you're happy to be who you are.
I'm happy to be who I am, and people are going to think what they think. If it makes them happy to think I'm gay, let them think I'm gay.
Kilday also contributes regularly to Premiere and Variety.
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|Publication:||The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)|
|Date:||Feb 13, 2001|
|Previous Article:||Looking for success in the new Washington.|
|Next Article:||Code of silence.|