Shortly after a domestic terrorist attack, the president took the lectern at a fundraising dinner. The lights were dim and the crowd restrained.
“More than any time in recent history, America’s destiny is not of our own choosing. We did not seek, nor did we provoke an assault on our freedom,” the Commander-in-Chief said. “When after having heard the explosion from their practice facility, they ran into the fire to help get people out. Ran into the fire. The streets of heaven are too crowded with angels tonight.”
But that speech wasn’t from any real president, it was from President Jed Bartlet on TV’s “The West Wing.” Rhetoric like that has inspired a new generation of young people working in Washington, D.C., even five years after the series stopped running in primetime.
“If it wasn’t for ‘The West Wing,’ I might be operating on somebody,” said Jamie Baker. Baker, 26, was a pre-med major at the University of Texas six years ago. As he was sitting in molecular biology, he said, “I thought to himself, ‘what am I doing, I hate this. I really love government.’”
Today he’s a legislative correspondent for Rep. Michael Burgess of Texas. He said after watching the entire “West Wing” series on DVD, he decided to switch majors to political science. And he’s still an avid fan.
Eshawn Rawley agrees. “It reinforced what we wanted to do with our careers,” said Rawley, 23, who works for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
“The West Wing” follows the senior staff of a Democratic president, the fictional Bartlet, played by Martin Sheen. It was known for its fast-moving dialogue, walk and talk scenes and high ratings, at least for a few years.
It ran for seven seasons on NBC, but has found new audiences on cable channels like Bravo and on DVDs. And, like some other programs that have long lives, it has influenced many people.
Joseph Saltzman, director of the Image of the Journalist in Popular Culture Project at the University of Southern California, said that every so often, a movie or a television show like “The West Wing” will inspire people to go into government, journalism or another field. He said it’s not common, but it happens more than people think.
“In the 1970s, it was said that ‘All the President’s Men’ inspired a generation of young people to become investigative journalists,” said Saltzman. “Young people were inspired to go into politics in 1939 when “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” showed what one good man in Congress could do.”
Rawley said “The West Wing” still has many fans in Washington. “Most folks on the Hill, you can drop a ‘West Wing’ reference and they will pick up on it,” he said When tornadoes struck the South recently, “all I had to say to my coworkers was this is a ‘West Wing’ moment.” They knew Obama would be going, just like an episode when tornadoes tore through Iowa and Bartlet was quick to get on a jet.
In fact, the parallels to President Obama’s administration have been eerie — from the very beginning. The last two seasons of the series, in 2005 and 2006, focused on a minority Democratic candidate (played by Jimmy Smits) facing off against an older, established Republican (played by Alan Alda) in the election to replace Sheen.
Last month’s budget battle had a ‘West Wing’ counterpart, too — in season 5, Bartlet battles a new Republican Speaker of the House who wants to cut spending. Only that battle ended in a government shutdown, which was narrowly avoided in real life.
“It was very poignant because that kind of moment happened — the president sitting down with the speaker,” said another die-hard “West Wing” fan now in Washington, Elliot Bell-Krasner. Bell-Krasner served as a deputy field organizer in the Obama campaign and is now getting his master’s in public policy at American University.
Saltzman said that comparisons between the Bartlet and Obama presidencies are specious. He said it’s unlikely the current administration are emulating the program, “but since ‘The West Wing’ was an extremely realistic rendering of the office, it makes sense that many events and activities mirror the new reality.”
Bell-Krasner said that “The West Wing” may not have been his original inspiration to enter politics, but it certainly inspires him to keep going.
Part of being in the “West Wing” culture in D.C. is knowing which character you are on the show. “Every ‘West Wing’ fan will try to determine who they are on the show,” said Rawley. He said he’s a Sam Seaborn — Bartlet’s deputy communications director, played by Rob Lowe. A little romantic, very smart, and the ideological center of the Bartlet White House.
Bell Krasner sees himself as Leo — the president’s hard noised chief of staff played by John Spencer. And Baker says he sees himself differently as his mood changes.
Baker showed just how the program transcended party lines. The show was criticized for being too liberal — one critic called it “The Left Wing” — but politics doesn’t keep Baker from watching.
“I watch because these people are doing what they feel is right,” said Baker. He says it’s the same in politics: You might not agree, but you have respect because “people believe in what they’re doing.”