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'West Wing' Hails the Real-Life Chiefs

Television* In tonight's episode, billed as a 'documentary,' political figures discuss their time in the White House.


President Bartlet is taking the night off, but Presidents Clinton, Ford and Carter will be standing in for him.

Billed as a "documentary" tonight, NBC's hit drama "The West Wing" takes an unusual form, featuring interviews with the aforementioned former presidents as well as Nixon administration Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and former White House staffers like Clinton aide Chris Engskov, upon whom the character of aide Charlie Young (Dule Hill) is loosely based.

"We were interested in their feelings about that period of their lives when they were in the West Wing," said Thomas Schlamme, one of the show's executive producers, who directed the episode. "We didn't want a sound bite or a scoop. There was nothing surprising other than how human it all is, which is the essence of our show."

The interviews were shot over the past two months by Bill Couturie, who won an Oscar for his 1989 feature documentary about the AIDS quilt, "Common Threads: Stories From the Quilt," and was nominated for an Oscar for his 1991 short subject documentary "Memorial: Letters From American Soldiers." Couturie and his crew met with Carter in Atlanta, Clinton in Harlem and Ford in Rancho Mirage.

Los Angeles Times Thursday April 25, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 1 inches; 28 words Type of Material: Correction
Director's name--A story in Wednesday's Calendar about that night's episode of "The West Wing" misidentified the director of the program as Thomas Schlamme. The program was directed by Bill Couturie.

The crew also spent several days in Washington this last winter, camped out less than two blocks from the White House in Constitutional Hall, interviewing Karl Rove, President Bush's right-hand man, as well as Democratic strategist Paul Begala and former White House spokespeople Marlin Fitzwater and Dee Dee Myers, both of whom now serve as consultants on "The West Wing."

Myers, who was the first to sit for the 90-minute session with Couturie, said the interviews reflect a consistent theme among West Wing staffers, regardless of administration, party or ideology.

"When you're in the White House, you think you've done something that no one else has done. In a way, that's true, no one's won the election you have. But you end up learning painful lessons, and there's a process of rebuilding," she said. "When you work there you think the whole world revolves around what the president has to say that day. When you leave, you realize that's not at all true."

Fitzwater, who served as press secretary during the Reagan and Bush administrations for a 10-year span beginning in 1983, spent more than an hour with Couturie in winter but on Monday said he was not sure which of his recollections, if any, made the final cut.

"I told stories about the briefing with my Soviet counterpart during the arms control talks and what it was like to warn CNN that they might be in danger if they stayed in Baghdad" during the Persian Gulf War, he said.

In similar fashion, Engskov, who was 27 when he became an aide to Clinton and spent seven years in the White House, said he put off telling his mother about his participation in the special episode until Tuesday, fearing his interview wouldn't make it into the show.

Now in its third season, the Emmy Award-winning show remains a ratings giant for NBC, drawing more than 17 million viewers each Wednesday, the kind of reach that gives series creator Aaron Sorkin tremendous freedom at the network. Tonight's "Documentary Special" marks the second time he has leveraged the program's ratings heat to deviate from its usual format. On Oct. 3, he reacted to the terrorism of Sept. 11 with a special episode in which the characters delivered detailed monologues on the history of terrorism, Islamic fundamentalism and racism. The show's opening credits were replaced with phone numbers for charities benefiting victims of the attacks.

The documentary is broken into four segments, each with a distinct theme. For the most part, Schlamme said, the titles were phrases lifted from one of the interviews, like "Mt. Rushmore," the heading for a block of interviews that deal with power. It was taken from White House advisor David Gergen's opinion that there is a certain hubris to every new president, and that each newly elected commander in chief invariably thinks "that there is room for one more head on Mt. Rushmore."

"The West Wing" airs tonight at 9 on NBC. The network has rated it TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children).

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