TERENCE SMITH: John, when you approach this role, how important is it to you to be either real, or close to real?
JOHN SPENCER: It's always important for me as an actor to reflect human behavior for a sense of reality. So this role is no more or less important than any other role, concerning the reality factor. I mean, I think art, at best, holds up a mirror to humanity. And unless we are real human beings, something's phony there, and it's not going to be as effective.
TERENCE SMITH: To what degree have you consulted with the [White House Chief of Staff] John Podestas of this world, or the people who have done the job that you are playing?
JOHN SPENCER: After the fact. Aaron gave me a book, the writing of five different chiefs of staff, and I read it before we started the pilot after I'd been cast. And way after the fact, into our first season, I met John Podesta. And I'm just crazy about him. He's a great fellow.
We didn't talk a lot of shop. We talked sort of human stuff: the size of his office; what his hours were, as opposed to my hours. I thought I had him beat, and then I discovered not. He has to do weekends; I don't do weekends.
And then I met Leon Panetta, who is a great, great guy, too, who gave me the biggest compliment. He said, "Any government would be lucky with 'Leo' as chief of staff."
TERENCE SMITH: That's great.
JOHN SPENCER: But you see, it's only 50 percent compliment, because Leo is also Aaron Sorkin. I'm just a sort of instrument who plays him, you know.
TERENCE SMITH: Do you think it's possible with a dramatic show such as yours to get close to, and maybe even closer to, the reality of how decisions are made in the White House than even conventional news reporting?
JOHN SPENCER: Well, I think you get the back story. I think you see the nuts and bolts of the events. I'm not sure, since we are first and foremost a fiction and an entertainment, that necessarily we would be more accurate than news. But we might be more all-inclusive, you know.
TERENCE SMITH: Is it a scary thought to you that some polls show that Americans--some Americans, many Americans--derive their impressions of the White House from your show?
JOHN SPENCER: It's a little scary. As I said before, I mean, our intent is to entertain. Our backdrop is Washington and the government, but we are an entertainment. We're an hour drama, not unlike other hour dramas. It's just that we're about the White House, we're about the seat of government.
TERENCE SMITH: And yet, one thing that people who have been in the White House say about it, one thing they like, is that the characters, especially you and others, are worldly but not cynical about public service.
JOHN SPENCER: Yes. Yes.
TERENCE SMITH: And is that sort of a deliberate message?
JOHN SPENCER: That's an Aaron Sorkinism. I like that, also. I mean, I think a pure reason for doing government service is indeed to serve for the good of the whole. And our administration, the "Bartlet administration," is filled with very devoted and honorable people whose desire is to serve the well-being of the American people. However, I must say, in meeting some of the staff of President Clinton's, especially the young aides and assistants, I was really impressed with the enthusiasm, the need and the desire to serve, the kind of optimistic point of view they all had. I mean, I almost thought they were working on our show.
TERENCE SMITH: Is it possible, in your view, for you and this show to get closer to the real story of what happens in the White House than it is for conventional news reporting?
JOHN SPENCER: I think so, from the standpoint that the conventional news reporters are seeing what an administration is putting out. They are not seeing behind closed doors. They are not, perhaps, seeing true relationships between human beings. We can do that.
I've often said that "The West Wing" is about human relationships, the backdrop is politics in the White House. But, basically, you know, it's about C.J., and Toby, and Leo, and these people who have worked together and formed complex friendships over the years and who are now in the White House. We don't get to see with real politicians because we don't get behind closed doors.
When a politician is addressing us or when his staff is addressing us, it's a formulated situation. They are telling us what they have planned to tell us, and we see only that. We do not see what goes into that press release: the meetings, the decisions, the pros and cons. And that's what we're able, as a drama, to portray. And I think that's why, perhaps, people feel more intimate watching us because they see the human beings behind the office.
TERENCE SMITH: Have you been at all surprised by the apparent willingness, judging from the numbers and the ratings, of the audience to listen to drama about very weighty issues?
JOHN SPENCER: I am, in general, surprised, although I actually believe that audiences, for the most part, are underestimated. I think you can show a group of people something that's mediocre, and they can certainly get into it. And then you can bring something in that's a cut above, and their attention will be pulled in that direction. I'm not suure everyone could define why they're looking over there suddenly. But I think cream does rise to the top, maybe it's my optimism.
I think there was some concern when we first were going on the air that perhaps we were too heady, too complex, things moved too quickly, things were not explained. I was overjoyed that Aaron stuck by his guns and thought, you know, if people are going to come along, they will. I'm not going to pander. I'm not going to explain things ad infinitum and be tedious. And I think people do.
TERENCE SMITH: Is there, on the other side of that coin, is there any danger in people drawing policy conclusions from "The West Wing"?
JOHN SPENCER: Well, yes, there is, I would imagine. Again, I have to say, first and foremost, we're an entertainment. So you have to see us as a fictionalized representation of what's really going on. We do not influence policy. People ask me if President Clinton has watched the show. From my few brief meetings with him, having met him, I don't think he's ever seen the show
TERENCE SMITH: Leo, the character you play, he's supposed to have hard edges. Is he a cynic?
JOHN SPENCER: I don't think so. I think he's a realist, but I don't think he's cynical. I don't think a man of his age could be cynical and choose this life. All parts of Leo's life are put on hold, except his service to the government and to the president--and to his friend, who happens to be the president. So I don't think if he were too cynical he would choose that route at this point. I think he'd go into retirement or lecturing, or something like that.
TERENCE SMITH: Is it surprising to you in any way that the public has responded to an issue-based drama? Some of the issues are heavy.
JOHN SPENCER: Yeah. I find it amazing, and very encouraging. I've often thought that the viewing public has been underestimated too often by "suits" in higher positions. I think people will watch something that is good, or even less than good--perhaps mediocre; and when shown something that is better, their attention will go over to that direction. They may not be able to define why, but I think it's instinct: The cream rises to the top, if I may be so poetic. I always thought the show was great, and when I read the pilot and decided to read for it, I loved the project. I wanted to do it badly.
I had no idea how the public would respond. I heard two trains of thought. One was that people, with the impeachment trials, would be fed up with government issues. The last thing they'd want to watch is a show about government. Another point of view was, well, they'll kind of be "jones-ing" for, you know, another injection of governmental issues.
You're just going to be coming in at the right time. I had no idea. In the arts, you do your best. You put it out there. You have your own belief about the quality of what you're doing. And then, what the public is going to do or not do is sort of just up in the air. You never know.
I've done good things, or things I've thought were good, that found no audience. And I've done things that I thought were so-so, and have found a great audience. So you can't predict that. That's the sort of chance unknown in the equation. It's a little scary. All you can do is do the best job.
TERENCE SMITH: What are some of the issues that you're going to tackle this next season?
JOHN SPENCER: A lot more of the political issues. We're going to go up against Congress a few times. You get to know some aspects of the workers' personal lives a little more. The "first lady" comes back to us--I say with a smile on my face, because I'm crazy about Stockard [Channing, who plays First Lady Abigail Bartlet]. And hopefully, more of the same.
I can say, as great as I thought the scripts were last season, and I certainly did, the first six that I've read this season are even better. I know that's a very brazen thing to say, but in my opinion, they're even better. I think we've all, including Aaron, settled in.
TERENCE SMITH: When you go at a role like this or even a particular script on one of these issues like ethanol or something, do you research it with the people who have been chiefs of staff? Other than the book, you mentioned the book already, but have talked to current or former chiefs of staff about the role?
JOHN SPENCER: I have, but not so much shop talk, especially with John Podesta, who I'm very fond of as a human being. I think he's a great fellow, and we've sort of developed a casual friendship. And it's a funny thing is that I've never talked nuts and bolts with him. I've never talked policy. We talk kind of general information, like size of office or your office is bigger than mine, or mine is painted green, yours is painted salmon.
TERENCE SMITH: But you don't go to a current or former chief of staff with a script in your hand or in your mind and say, "What would the chief of staff do in a situation like this?"
JOHN SPENCER: No. I might, if opportunity presented itself, go to a former chief of staff with that kind of thing. I would be loathe to do it to somebody who is in the administration now. I think it would be dangerous. Areas you don't want to get involved in.
You know, I would probably ask Leon Panetta, who I've met and is a great fellow and gave me a, I immodestly say, a huge compliment and said that, actually, it's an Aaron Sorkin compliment, if you really come down to it, he said, "Any administration that would have Leo McGarry as a chief of staff would be very, very fortunate."
TERENCE SMITH: So that's high praise.
JOHN SPENCER: I was, I was very taken and very proud of that remark by him. But, again, that's a dance between Sorkin and myself. He writes the words, I'm the instrument that plays them, but the ideas and the words are his. So it couldn't be John Spencer being chief of staff, it would have to be John Spencer with Aaron Sorkin telling him what to do.