'The West Wing' and The State of The Union: Richard Schiff on Life Imitating Art

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The cast of the hit show 'The West Wing.' Toby Ziegler, played by actor Richard Schiff, is pictured fifth center.
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At its peak, Aaron Sorkin's television drama "The West Wing" was a top 10 show with more than 17 million viewers. On air from 1999 to 2006, the program gave Americans a window—albeit a fictional one—into life in the White House’s West Wing.

Nearly a decade since the series finale aired, the show remains popular. There's a hardcore superfan base, many of the main characters have active Twitter accounts (a platform that didn't exist when the show was on the air), and a number of books and essays have been written about the drama.

Character “Toby Ziegler,” played by actor Richard Schiff, was the White House communications director for fictional Democratic President Josiah Bartlet. In “The West Wing,” Toby was the man responsible for carefully crafting the president's speeches. He agonized over word choice, and for the State of the Union, fought with cabinet members on what should and shouldn't be included.

“We were so close to the real deal on ‘The West Wing’ because we had consultants who had lived and worked it,” Schiff says. “From Lawrence O’Donnell to Eli Attie, who was in the White House, and Dee Dee Meyers, who was the press secretary—I think Aaron and the writing staff had direct access to real stories.”

Last night, President Obama delivered his final State of the Union address. What would Toby Ziegler make of it? Schiff, like many others, says that it appears life is imitating art.

On January 16, 2002, “The West Wing” episode “100,000 Airplanes” aired. Fictional President Bartlet used his State of the Union address to call for an end to cancer by 2012. On Tuesday night, President Obama issued a very similar call.

“Last year, Vice President Biden said that with a new moonshot, America can cure cancer,” Obama told the nation. “Last month, he worked with this Congress to give scientists at the National Institutes of Health the strongest resources they’ve had in over a decade. Tonight, I’m announcing a new national effort to get it done.”

“I saw that reference to ‘The West Wing’ with all the tweets last night,” says Schiff. “That reminded me of our episode about the same thing.”

The parallels don’t stop there. In fact, “The West Wing” character of “Congressman Matt Santos,” played by actor Jimmy Smits, was actually inspired by Obama, then a state senator in Illinois.

“Santos was based on Obama,” Schiff say. “We had all been in Boston listening to [Obama’s] speech in 2004—[in] coming up to the next presidential election in ‘The West Wing,’ Eli Attie called David Axlerod and said, ‘Tell me about this kid from Chicago.’ Our version of that turned into Santos.”

In the show, Santos ran for president against the character of “Arnold Vinick,” a fictional Republican senator portrayed by actor Alan Alda—a character that was based off of U.S. Senator John McCain, the man who ran against President Obama in 2008.

“If you go back and look at those debates that we did live on ‘The West Wing,’ they’re very similar to the debates that later happened between Obama and McCain,” Schiff says.

Even though “The West Wing” is fictional, Schiff argues that program’s legacy is incredibly complex—even for him.

“What I find interesting is that when people remember the Bartlet Administration as one of great accomplishment, I as Toby, playing Toby, didn’t feel that at all—maybe I was getting too close to my character,” he says. “I remember once pitching to Aaron Sorkin that Toby was very unsatisfied with what our legacy was going to be. I pitched a speech between Toby and Leo [McGarry] in the portico, which was basically, ‘Where is our great society? Where is our New Deal? We haven’t accomplished anything except for putting a Hispanic in the Supreme Court.’”

Some have called "The West Wing" a "pedagogical tool," something Schiff appears to agree with.

“When you look at what Aaron and the rest of the writing staff and all of us were able to achieve, it was really depicting the difficulty of getting anything done, despite monumental efforts,” he says. “When you look at what the Obama Administration has actually accomplished as delineated by him last night, it’s much greater than anything the Bartlet Administration had accomplished. I think it’s quite remarkable. This speech last night, which I thought was brilliant, reminded me very much of an Aaron Sorkin-esque type of speech.”

Though Schiff is also a Democratic activist, he feels he does not participate enough in the American political system.

“I get so bored with the vitriol and the Trumpism that I just get debilitated by it,” he says. “Obama’s reprimand to the everyday American citizen to keep participating and not let that vitriol be defeating to us, I thought that was remarkable.”

However, in the years since “The West Wing” aired, politics has changed a great deal—and so has the television portrayal of democracy.

“‘House of Cards’ to me is ‘Macbeth’ placed in Washington, D.C.,” says Schiff. “I don’t think it depicts a reality that exists—hopefully we’re not murdering each other and hopefully everyone doesn’t have blood on their hands."

He continues: "But I think it does reflect what many of us feel what politics has become in Washington, which is that back-stabbing and willing to go to any lengths to defeat our opponent, [and the] vitriolic separation of interests and parties. I think it reflects that very accurately, and it’s very interesting that that is the show of this era, whereas ‘The West Wing’ was more of a show of, I’m guessing, a more hopeful era.”