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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.

By Jessica E. Gould, Crimson Staff Writer

“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.

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.”

Like Attie, O’Donnell has also injected his real-life political experiences into the show’s storylines. O’Donnell, who also serves as a senior political analyst for MSNBC and a panelist on “The McLaughlin Group,” says everything he has written for the show stems directly from his work in Washington. In addition to serving as the Chief of Staff on the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works and then in the same position on the Senate Committee on Finance, O’Donnell was an advisor to the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y.

According to O’Donnell, “Everything I ever suggested for ‘The West Wing’ comes from my work with Senator Moynihan.”

Although O’Donnell is a longtime and much-honored writer—before he came to “The West Wing,” he had written a book and penned magazine articles—he neither particularly enjoys writing nor considers himself a success at the craft.

“It’s a horrible and difficult task, but it’s better than working and easier,” he muses.

Despite his difficulties with writing, O’Donnell says that his “West Wing” job allows him to focus on those aspects of writing that he most enjoys.

“I care about drama. I care about character. I don’t care about my own politics being expressed in a drama,” he says.

O’Donnell likes to approach issues that he dealt with during his life in politics from opposite viewpoints; he is proudest of an episode in which he reasoned through arguments in favor of the death penalty despite his lifelong objection to capital punishment. “Once you go counter to my politics,” he says, “it becomes an interesting story.”

Escape from Reality

Attie, O’Donnell and Goffman, whose careers have spanned the political and entertainment worlds, are all emphatic about maintaining the distinction between their television work and the reality of government.

“What we’re doing on ‘The West Wing’ is fictional,” states O’Donnell. “It’s not a place to learn about politics or government. Has there ever been a fundraiser on ‘The West Wing’? No. So right there, you’re in Disneyland.”

Goffman concurs.

“The goal of the show is to entertain. Any time you try to be didactic, you end up not being able to get people excited. You sound like a Sunday morning talk show,” he says. “Our world [on the show] deals with a world of idealism and possibility. If we can tap into that, that’s great.

But you can’t start out trying to do that.”

Besides, says Goffman, dramatizing real issues does not necessarily lead to effecting change.

“Shakespeare wrote about kings and queens, but did what he write affect the monarchy?” he asks. “I don’t know, but I doubt it.”

O’Donnell balks at the notion that “The West Wing” may be galvanizing young people to become involved in politics.

“‘The West Wing’ is an extremely naive entry into politics and political thinking,” he says. “When I was at Harvard, the thing that was the threshold that brought people into politics was the [Vietnam] war. I would be amazed if a TV drama would be the thing, with the war in Iraq and with Sept. 11, that would get students interested in politics,” he says. “Now is an extremely contentious time. It couldn’t be more interesting than now.”

Still, Attie recognizes the intertwined nature of politics and entertainment, a linkage his trajectory typifies. “As a speechwriter, I was on the showbiz side of politics. Now I’m on the politics side of showbiz, and it may just be a few steps to the right or the left.”

Ivy in the White House

In addition to weaving their real-life political experiences into the show, Attie, O’Donnell and Goffman have also found their Harvard ties useful in fleshing out their characters. When Goffman maps out the show’s dialogue and issue-oriented debates, he utilizes strategies that he learned at the KSG. Attie, meanwhile, looks to the personality types that he encountered at Harvard when he crafts characters.

“We want to present smart, erudite, ambitious people, so it made sense that some of them went to Harvard and had that pedigree,” he says.

The show is full of Ivy-educated characters: Josh went from Harvard to Yale Law School, former staffer Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe) did time at Princeton, First Lady Abigail Bartlet (Stockard Channing ’65) graduated from Harvard Medical School, and her chief of staff, Amy Gardner (Mary-Louise Parker), went to Brown and Yale Law.

In fact, President Bartlet himself would have been a Harvard alum, but Martin Sheen, a diehard fan of the Fighting Irish, insisted that his character had graduated from Notre Dame.

But Attie is careful to point out that the show does not project an all-Ivy portrait of Washington politics. He highlights Communications Director Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff), who went to City College, and asserts that an Ivy League degree is not necessary to a successful political career.

“In Washington, you have a lot of people with sheer grit and tenacity. The question is, at the end of the day, can you get the job done?” he says. “No matter what your knowledge of rare birds or Latin phraseology, you still have to be able to connect with people.”

O’Donnell similarly downplays the importance of a Harvard degree in Washington, and for that reason, he “willfully abstained” when the writers created the character of Ryan Pierce.

“He certainly is not modeled on anyone I know. I never like the TV or movie Harvard characters. The fact of the matter is that most people who go to Harvard went to public schools and weren’t in final clubs,” he says. “I didn’t even know that final clubs existed until I was a senior. The thing that I care about least is that Ryan and Josh talk about Harvard. I would have preferred that he didn’t go there.”

The writers demurred about whether Harvard students can expect the show to throw more nods in their direction, but Goffman hinted that viewers haven’t seen the last of Ryan Pierce. If Eli Attie’s fond memories are any indication of the writers’ fidelity to fair Harvard, it seems that the University will continue to play a role in “The West Wing.”

“The students are just so incredible,” he says. “You just never have a better peer group than that. I have had a lot of great experiences since college, met a lot of interesting, important people. But the smoking section in the Dunster dining hall on a Tuesday night was the best place to be.”

—Staff writer Jessica E. Gould can be reached at gould@fas.harvard.edu.

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