By Tommy Tobin
“The West Wing” is a show that led many members of the HKS community to this place and helped to define their public service trajectories. On Friday, March 28th the IOP Forum hosted cast members Bradley Whitford (“Josh Lyman”), Janel Moloney (“Donna Moss”), Richard Schiff (“Toby Ziegler”), and Lawrence O’Donnell to talk discuss the show and its influence.
The event was a multimedia marvel. Moderator O’Donnell and Whitford were physically in the Forum, Janel Moloney skyped in from New York and Schiff was on the phone from California. O’Donnell played several clips from the show to illustrate some of the key themes from the show’s seven seasons. For Marisa Dowling, MPP’ 16, the clips showcased the show’s consistent balance between “reality and what we wish our government would do.”
Excellent writing was a hallmark of the show. As writer and executive producer, O’Donnell feared that the show may have been “too good” to be picked up. In fact, the script was rejected at first by the network. Schiff highlighted the fact that the writing made “good people dramatic. It’s easy to make bad people dramatic as they create conflict simply by being alive.” The writing team would often craft storylines that pitted the President against his better angels and demonstrate “the difficulty of telling truth under a microscope.”
Each actor had stories to contribute on the show’s writing. Schiff revealed that his character almost went to the comedic actor Eugene Levy, famous for his role in American Pie. That casting choice could have taken the dramatic and serious Toby Zeigler in a far different direction. The writing also took Janel Moloney from a bit part in the pilot to a full role throughout the series. O’Donnell highlighted the fact that Moloney is used as the case example for actors who have a small pilot role who hope to land in the series. She told the crowd that she was concerned that she’d be cut from the cast. That was until an executive producer told her, “Kid, you’re going to be here ‘til the curtain comes down.” After the talk, HKS student Dowling was convinced the “writing was tailored to each of the actors, capturing their off-camera personality on-stage.”
The show both reflected and influenced real-world events. The writers would create storylines out of news stories, like the death penalty. O’Donnell claimed that sometimes the writers would need to educate the audience about certain issues such as the debt ceiling in order to create the show’s drama and tension. When the West Wing would mention certain issues, it was not uncommon for the cast to get letters from political leaders. O’Donnell told of a writing a storyline touching on a base closure in upstate New York, after which he received a letter from then-Senator Hillary Clinton to not close the base. HKS even had a role to play in “The West Wing,” as Schiff revealed that the portrayal of his character was based on David Gergen among other presidential advisors.
Perhaps the most lasting effect of the show is its influence to lead people into politics. Whitford told of running into a young, harried, and overworked staffer who told him that his character convinced him to go into political work. The other actors shared similar stories.
The West Wing, according to Dowling, was about “good people trying to make hard choices in a chaotic environment.” That is exactly the sort of activity we are being trained to do here at the Kennedy School.