- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 18, 2003

NBC's new political drama, "Mister Sterling," is the latest creation of Lawrence O'Donnell, a Washington politico in his previous career. Formerly an aide to retired New York Sen. Daniel P. Moynihan and a top staffer on the Senate Finance Committee, Mr. O'Donnell also was the creative force, with writer-director Aaron Sorkin, behind the popular presidential drama "The West Wing."
In the lexicon of Washington politics, Mr. O'Donnell "cashed in" his Capitol Hill experience. That phrase, however, is usually applied to well-placed congressional or presidential aides who leave the Hill for plush jobs with K Street lobbying shops or New York financial firms.
The phenomenon became known and often criticized as the "revolving door": the channeling of influential staffers out of government and into positions where they're paid handsomely for access to former colleagues and bosses.
It applies not just to former staffers but to ex-members of Congress as well. Near-House Speaker Robert Livingston, for example, set up his own lobbying shop after resigning in 1998. Democrat David McCurdy, a former House member from Oklahoma, is now the executive director of the Electronic Industries Alliance.
However, a sexier industry is beckoning government refugees these days, in Hollywood.
Among the other Washington politicos NBC tapped for "The West Wing" were former Clinton administration press secretary Dee Dee Myers, a "West Wing" consultant, and former Al Gore speechwriter Eli Attie (credited with Mr. Gore's historic 2000 concession speech), who writes for the show.
The "Mister Sterling" production also has taken aboard a number of former Capitol Hill staffers in an effort to ensure verisimilitude.
Laurie Coleman, wife of Minnesota's newest senator, Norm Coleman, is getting into the act, too, as it were. According to a report in the Minnesota Star Tribune, she has a cameo appearance as a receptionist on the forthcoming NBC show "Kingpin," which debuts next month.
Another TV show, a District-based comedy called "Charlie Lawrence," starring Nathan Lane as a gay New Mexico representative, is in the works at CBS.
Staffers for Congress' two openly gay members, Rep. Jim Kolbe, Arizona Republican, and Rep. Barney Frank, Massachusetts Democrat, consulted on the show, according to a Baltimore Sun article. Kristin Gore, daughter of the former vice president, is writing for the CBS show, tentatively scheduled to air in March.
In October 2001, Jeffrey Richman, executive producer of "Charlie Lawrence," came to Washington to research the show. "I was astonished at the accessibility of congressmen and staffers," he says via phone. "They were incredibly helpful" to the point where they seemed more interested in him than in constituents there to visit their congressional representatives.
Mr. Richman says that since the September 11 terrorist attacks, Hollywood has taken more of an interest in Washington in the nitty-gritty business of the federal government.
The Hollywood-Washington connection works both ways. Mr. O'Donnell himself worked in Hollywood before taking a job on Sen. Moynihan's 1988 re-election campaign, a good example of the bicoastal cross-pollination occurring today.
A short list of others who have made the eastward trek from Hollywood to Washington include Democrat Ben Jones, Cooter on "Dukes of Hazzard," who briefly represented a Georgia congressional district and sought creative ways to torment Newt Gingrich; the recently retired Republican Sen. Fred Thompson, who appeared in such movies as "The Hunt for Red October" and "Die Hard 2" before winning a Tennessee Senate seat; and, of course, the actor and former Screen Actors Guild president, Ronald Reagan.
Hollywood, moreover, has long had an interest in the putatively seamy goings-on of Washington. Such movies as "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" (1939), "Advise and Consent" (1962) and, more recently, "The Contender" spring immediately to mind.
The Washington infiltration of Hollywood is a relatively recent curiosity, however, beginning in earnest with the movie industry's favorite president, Bill Clinton.
Throughout his presidency, he counted as best pals and confidants the TV producer Harry Thomason and his wife, Linda Bloodworth-Thomason.
For conservative-minded critics of the Clinton administration, the unseemliness of Hollywood-Washington coziness could be summed up in one notorious photograph that ran on the cover of the Weekly Standard: that of Miss Bloodworth-Thomason and actress Markie Post giddily jumping on a bed in the White House's Lincoln Bedroom.
"The West Wing" is considered by some conservatives a thinly veiled celebration of left-liberal politics.
"The show is liberal pornography, in the sense that it is about sensation, about creating an almost orgasmic confrontational moment that always ends up being resolved happily," New York Post critic John Podhoretz told TV Guide. "It's a liberal fantasy of White House politics."
Former Clinton White House staffer Joshua King, who sold a "West Wing"-like series concept to Lifetime Television in the mid-'90s, says TV shows with sociopolitical content have no hope of winning a loyal audience if they harp too much on divisive issues.
Mr. King, a political consultant with Penn, Schoen & Berland Associates in Washington, says, "The success or failure of these shows depends on two things: one, and most importantly, how well the characters are developed as human beings, and two, how accurately they portray the slice of life that is Washington."
Former Washingtonians working in Hollywood, he says, were hired by studio executives because of the personal, human perspective they could bring to shows with political backdrops, not for their partisan opinions.
It be would difficult, according to Mr. King, for a Hollywood screenwriter who hasn't spent much time on Capitol Hill or the White House to truly capture political life in the nation's capital.
A former Clinton-Gore administration staffer now working in Hollywood, who asked not to be named, says other TV shows arguably have a "conservative bent," such as "Jag," "First Monday" and "The Agency," all on CBS.
As with "The West Wing," says a former White House staffer who also asked not to be named, the ratings of such shows depend on the human stories they tell, not on their polemical inclinations.
"This is a business about drama, and Washington is full of it," the source says. "Washington is an interesting, dynamic place to be. When [TV shows] try to talk about policy, that, to me, is a lot less interesting or compelling."


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