Photo credit: Koury Angelo
I was new to the writers’ room. Mostly, I’d been helping myself to the ubiquitous snacks that filled the otherwise unremarkable, whiteboard-lined office. Keeping my head down. Listening and learning what it meant to be a TV writer. But when somebody pitched that our main character — the president — should fire his FBI director, I saw an opportunity to prove my worth.
“Guys,” I started in, “No president these days would realistically fire his FBI director while under investigation.” Of course, the real often bends to the dramatic in my new business, but the room, deferring to my expertise
, agreed it was a nonstarter for our pretend president. We broke for what I had already gathered was the linchpin of the day, the most important part of a TV writer’s life: it was time for lunch.
By the time we returned to the room, our nonstarter was already finished. Donald Trump had fired James Comey.
This embarrassing early misstep reminded me of my first day in the Obama White House, when I asked my boss about a confusing term that had been thrown around all day, a word I didn’t understand: “Hey Matt,” I said, “What’s a POTUS?”
“Oops,” I said to my new coworkers in the writers’ room. “Sorry.”
Turns out I knew a very different reality. On January 19, 2017, I left Washington, DC, moving straight from the West Wing of the Obama White House to the west side of Hollywood. In my cross-country drive, it seemed, everything I learned about what it means to work in the White House — accumulated over six years from a makeshift desk situated 30 feet from the Oval Office — had evaporated before I crossed the Mississippi.
Sure, the new White House has retained the Veep-ness, but the Trump people forgot to embrace The West Wing, grabbing hold instead of story lines that you’d sooner see in a mob movie.
During my time at the White House, which I write about in my upcoming memoir, West Winging It: An Un-Presidential Memoir
, I was lucky enough to write in the voice of, travel with, and plan events for the president. I had a front row seat to history (okay, I was the guy who snuck in and stood in the back).
Still, I was often asked which television show most closely approximates the actual experience of life at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. And I had a stock answer: Truth is, it sits at the intersection of Veep
and The West Wing
, but skews closer to Veep
. That’s because HBO nails the minutiae, the nonsense that makes up the bulk of our days and the little things that can spiral into insanity. But The West Wing
captures some of the magic, highlighting those rarer moments that make all the nonsense worth it — portraying a Commander in Chief who is flawed but deeply thoughtful, competent, and ultimately, good.
At least, that’s the way it was in our White House. But my stock response is now out of date. Since the eviction of we Obama people, it seems Sorkin’s grace — his weekly we’re-here-for-the-right-reason
reminders — has slipped away. The balance between minutiae and momentous is out of whack. Sure, the new White House has retained the Veep
-ness, but the Trump people forgot to embrace The West Wing
, grabbing hold instead of story lines that you’d sooner see in a mob movie. Or Dumb and Dumber
Going directly from the real White House to a fake one is jarring (just ask America), but I found comfort in how seriously everyone seemed to take their jobs working on Designated Survivor
, the Kiefer Sutherland ABC drama I joined in my post-White House life. On set, we make every effort to compose realistic documents, even if they won’t ever be on camera. We strive for verisimilitude. But now that we know that the actual president doesn’t read his Daily Briefing, that reading isn’t his “learning style,” he might as well be sitting on a set surrounded by stacks of blank paper. Verisimilitude. President only when the cameras blink red.
When our cameras blinked red, a million miles from Washington, I’m glad we chose not to have our pretend president fire his FBI director. Because in the age of a reality TV president, it’s time that TV reminds us of what a real president should be and answers the age-old question: “What’s a POTUS?”
÷ ÷ ÷
is author of West Winging It: An Un-Presidential Memoir
. He served as President Obama’s Senior Writer and Deputy Director of Messaging, and is now a TV writer in Hollywood, where he lives with his wife. Pat has written for The New Yorker
and POLITICO Magazine
, and he’s currently adapting West Winging It
for television (when he’s not at lunch).