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Extended Interview: Marlin Fitzwater

September 8, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT


TERENCE SMITH: The show, “The West Wing,” what do you think of it?

MARLIN FITZWATER: Well, I like the show. I was prepared not to, because I just thought, you know, this is my sacred place of honor out there. Then film a sitcom about it. But after I saw a couple, I really liked it.

TERENCE SMITH: What did you like about it?

MARLIN FITZWATER: I like it because I think it accurately portrays so many of the aspects of the White House that people never get to see and can’t know about. And I also like it because it shows people that care about each other and are trying to do the right thing. The White House has been plagued so often in the last three decades with people who weren’t trying to do the right thing, that I think it’s healthy. I think it’s good for the country.

TERENCE SMITH: It does in fact, sort of honor public service.

MARLIN FITZWATER: It does. It shows the camaraderie that I think is real in every White House, and whether you agree with what they do or not, they’re trying to do the best they can by their party, their country and their president.

TERENCE SMITH: You said it accurately portrays what goes on in the White House. Genuinely so?

MARLIN FITZWATER: Well, I think so. I give dramatic license, of course, to the fact that it’s a television show, so I don’t require that it be exactly the same. For example, the show has all these people running around helter skelter, and open offices, and carrying on conversations in hallways with secretaries and — that doesn’t happen.

On the other hand, it does give you dramatically a feel for the frenzy and the hectic activity that you feel as a staffer. You always feel like you’re running, you’re hustling, you’re having to deal with issues at a moment’s notice, and this accurately portrays that.

TERENCE SMITH: In fact, many of the scenes have principal characters storming up and down these hallways, almost as though they never sit down.

MARLIN FITZWATER: Right. Well, that doesn’t happen in reality, but I think the impact is real. It shows how fast issues come up and how fast you have to deal with them, how little information you often have, how sometimes you’re wrong, sometimes you’re arrogant, sometimes you’re soft, sometimes you’re pompous and doing some stupid things, and it’s all right there to see. And so, given that license, I think that’s a very good portrayal.

TERENCE SMITH: For ten years you dealt with news organizations who were covering the White House and the president in a conventional news way, trying to report what happened.


TERENCE SMITH: Who gets closer to the truth?

MARLIN FITZWATER: Well, I think the show shows the kind of frustrations that exist between a press secretary and the press corps, and there’s always truth on both sides. I think C. J. [press secretary portrayed by actress Allison Janney] does a great job. She suffers the same pain and anguish that I suffered. I can see it in her face. I think, “That’s me 10 years ago”, you know? And I think it’s very healthy.

TERENCE SMITH: So it really rings true to you?

MARLIN FITZWATER: It rings true to me in so many different ways, certainly in a press way. It also shows how the press guides issues. It shows how they influence the agenda. You see her running in to the president and saying, “Mr. President, the press corps thinks this is all wet.” And he says, “Why?” And they start worrying about it, and thinking, “How are we going to deal with this?” Those things really happen.

TERENCE SMITH: Are you saying then that they in certain ways get at the truth better or more successfully than the conventional news approach?

MARLIN FITZWATER: Well, I think in some ways they can dramatize things that happen that you’ll never see any other way. A recent show, for example, where they fired an ambassador to make room for somebody else they wanted to move into that slot so they could hire somebody else in a third position, that happens often. I’ve been a part of those kinds of things myself, but it never happens in the White House. The president never does the dirty work himself, and the public never hears about it. But the show was able to dramatize that.

TERENCE SMITH: And in the case you’re mentioning, they had the president fire and transfer the people. That would never happen?

MARLIN FITZWATER: Right. They had the president fire an ambassador and then hire a person off the Federal Election Commission to be the ambassador, so they could get an open slot on the Elections Commission for somebody else they wanted. Well, the president wouldn’t get involved in that in reality. He would make the decisions to do it, but no one would ever see it. But it’s exactly how the White House works. I think that’s the great value of this show. It shows how the presidency works.

TERENCE SMITH: A news program could only report the bottom line, the end of the process, that so-and-so had been relieved as ambassador and somebody appointed.


TERENCE SMITH: They couldn’t tell the back-story.

MARLIN FITZWATER: Well, that’s right. Often they don’t even know the back-story. Certainly, often, it’s one that the White House doesn’t want anybody to know. For example, if a president of another country calls up our State Department and says, “I don’t like your ambassador. The guy just rubs me the wrong way,” well, they’ll find a way to get rid of him, but he’s not going to be fired. It’s not going to be a scene where anybody will ever know, the press and the public will never know, but that guy will suddenly be given another post, and we’ll get a new ambassador. That happens quite a bit.

TERENCE SMITH: So that’s a good illustration. I mean, that’s a case of this show getting behind the story and dramatizing what might have happened.

MARLIN FITZWATER: Yes. And I think that can happen frequently, that they can dramatize things that the public doesn’t see.

TERENCE SMITH: And the program is quite liberal. I mean, the positions taken.

MARLIN FITZWATER: Well, it has a liberal, Democratic president. And that dictates not only the show, but the nature of the way the decisions are cast. If it had been a conservative president, it would have to be the other way.

One of the great lessons of this show is that it teaches people how politics works in the White House, and how when you elect a president, you elect a party, and you elect like-minded people to run a government who are going to carry out decisions according to that philosophy. And it’s good for people to see that if you have a Democrat or a Republican in the White House, don’t be expecting decisions of the opposite genre, because it’s not going to happen.

TERENCE SMITH: And you are now serving as a consultant to the show.


TERENCE SMITH: How did that come about?

MARLIN FITZWATER: Well, [former Clinton White House Press Secretary] DeeDee Myers has been a consultant since the beginning. DeeDee and I are good friends. And I think she let them know that maybe it would be helpful to get a Republican point of view on some of these things. She recommended me. Then Aaron Sorkin called and said, “Would you be interested?”

I actually had given him a little advice when he was making the movie, “The American President”, so I had met him once before. I thought it sounded like fun.

TERENCE SMITH: Give me an example of how the consulting works. I mean, what might they ask you, or what might you offer?

MARLIN FITZWATER: Well, I’ve only been on the job for a few weeks, but generally they call up and say, “We have a scenario where the press secretary is in trouble for some reason, and we need her to establish a relationship with a person in the general counsel’s office. Do you have any ideas about how to do that?”

And I come back with a scenario that says, “Yes, let’s have her get in trouble by saying the wrong thing on some legal subject. She worries about it all night long, comes in the next day and asks for legal counsel.” And I think that will be one of the episodes. Or another time they’ll say that, “We’re going to have a scenario involving a foreign leader that’s come to the White House. Are there any kind of interesting experiences you’ve had?” And I might reel off three or four, some of the weird foreign leaders who have come to the White House and give them a little scenario that they can use in the show in some fashion.

TERENCE SMITH: Do you ever wave them off? Do you ever counsel them against a particular scenario of development?

MARLIN FITZWATER: Well, that really hasn’t happened in the sense that they don’t present the whole show to me. But, for example, they do present a scenario, for example, on school vouchers or on maybe a weapons treaty of some kind. And I will say, “Now, here are both points of view. Here’s what the Republicans would say about that. You know what the Democrats are going to say about that. So you might keep in mind that your president is going to look a little foolish if he goes ahead with it kind of the way you’ve got in mind.”

TERENCE SMITH: This reality that they’re striving for? Is it just because that makes a better story or are they trying to be true to some other principle as well?

MARLIN FITZWATER: Well, no. I think, first of all there is a certain respect for the White House, and they also know that the American people hold the White House in a certain prestige, in a certain sense of principle, and I don’t think they could get away with being totally disrespectful or too far off the mark. It’s not unlike “ER” where they try to duplicate what goes on in a hospital. And now we see a show about Johns Hopkins Hospital, and that’s true, they look just the same.

TERENCE SMITH: Tell me this: do you think, from what you know, are we ever going to see a Republican president on the “West Wing?”

MARLIN FITZWATER: Well, I think that would be Aaron Sorkin’s ultimate test, is to have an election, change presidents and then go for a year or two with a conservative president. I think it would be very interesting and no reason why they couldn’t do it.

TERENCE SMITH: Have you recommended it?

MARLIN FITZWATER: I haven’t recommended it yet, but I think Aaron Sorkin is brilliant. The way he captures attitudes and nuances of issues and people’s attitudes toward each other in the White House is truly remarkable.

TERENCE SMITH: Now, from the segments that you’ve seen, have you seen any real clunkers? Have you been sitting in your living room and said, “It wouldn’t happen that way?”

MARLIN FITZWATER: I’ve only seen one that I thought was so far off the mark that it was really a mistake, and that’s when they had a Supreme Court nominee arrested for speeding, and two members of the White House staff went and broke him out of jail, which is an impeachable offense. And for any White House to really try that would have been stupid. First of all, everybody in the White House would have gotten fired. The president would have gotten impeached, and the Supreme Court nominee would have to be dumber than an owl to ever break the law by getting out of a speeding ticket. So that was the only one that I thought was really off the mark.

TERENCE SMITH: What about the personal relationships that are depicted in the show? We have members of the staff sleeping with each other, the staff and the press sleeping with each other, one staff guy involved with a prostitute. How true is this?

MARLIN FITZWATER: Well, things like those always happen. Seldom do they happen as obvious as they do in the show. But there are always relationships among people on the staff. There’s always relationships in the press corps, where you have 70 people there all day, every day. They get to know each other pretty well. And so that’s another case where the show is able to dramatize some of those things that the public never sees, but believe me, they happen.