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The 'West' and the Brightest

These Harvard graduates learned triumph and defeat in national politics. Then they went to Hollywood to write what they knew.

“The West Wing” sent its Harvard viewers a shout-out two weeks ago when two Harvard-educated characters began waxing nostalgic about their alma mater in Crimson lingo.

The conversation introduced viewers to Ryan Pierce (Jesse Bradford), a recent Harvard graduate interning for Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford). Though both characters spent their undergraduate years crisscrossing the Yard, they prove vastly different kinds of Harvard men.

Josh is brisk and businesslike, a Crimson editor who spent his Friday nights in college studying at the library, while Ryan, a product of the final club circuit, is pigeonholed as a privileged party boy, tripping over his loafers as he attempts to match Josh’s pace in the West Wing’s halls.

According to the show’s writers, Ryan’s Harvard background and deep pockets will add an interesting dimension to the dynamics of “The West Wing.”

“I hope he’s going to be in a position where he can influence policy,” says Mark Goffman, one of the show’s writers. “The fact that he went to Harvard is something we’re playing with—how he has access because of Harvard, and in other ways, that somebody else might not have.”

Goffman—who spent a semester living in Quincy House as a visiting student from Emory University and went on to receive an Masters degree in Public Policy from the Kennedy School of Government (KSG) in 1994—would know. If Harvard seems well-represented on the resumes of TV’s White House power brokers, it may be because so many of the show’s producers and writers themselves traversed the winding paths of the Yard. In addition to Goffman, Harvard trained three of the show’s producers: Eli Attie ’89, Lawrence O’Donnell ’76 and Paul Redford ’80.

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Walking the Corridors of Power

Attie, co-producer and member of the show’s writing staff, says he never expected to be writing for a television show. A Social Studies concentrator and Crimson editor who lived in Dunster House, he focused on academics while in college and planned to attend Harvard Law School.

After graduation, Attie joined the New York City Urban Fellows Program, where he became an assistant to Ed Koch’s policy advisor and then a speechwriter for David Dinkins. Later, Attie moved to Washington where he worked for Dick Gephardt, Bill Clinton, and Al Gore ’69, a fellow Dunsterite who would joke with Attie about their shared roots.

Attie served as Gore’s speechwriter during his 2000 presidential campaign. It was on the campaign trail that Attie remembers first watching “The West Wing.” He recalls being immediately impressed by the show’s seriousness and its reverence for the political process.

“You could tell that this show was different, that it had a better sense of the kind of people in Washington, that it was more reflective of reality,” he says.

Attie was drawn to the show’s representation of White House insiders as driven and decent people. “The thing ‘The West Wing’ always intended to do was to show the kind of people you hoped would be running the country,” he says.

But it was only following Gore’s defeat in the 2000 election that Attie decided to make the transition from real politics to entertainment politics. Soon after helping Gore pen his highly-praised concession speech, Attie signed on as a writer for “The West Wing.”

“It was a real demoralizing time for me,” says Attie, “But writing for the show was therapeutic.”

When he arrived at the show, the ex-politco says he was slightly disoriented by the similarities between the West Coast set and his old stomping grounds in the White House.

“From the first day, there was an element of unreality for me, because there are parts of the set that look like the real West Wing,” he says. “It was as if my neurons got confused and I forgot where I was.”

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