The real ‘West Wing”

The following essay was written for a magazine-writing class in 2009.

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My political science teacher in college once broke down the definition of “politics” as “poly” meaning “many” and “ticks” meaning “parasites”. As he told our class this interpretation of politics’ definition, I agreed with him. At that point in my life, I viewed politics as several politicians meeting on Capitol Hill contemplating vital issues facing our nation and arguing over the necessary steps that needed to be taken in order to enhance the lives of American citizens.

While these outside views are widely shared by many Americans, they are no more than stereotypical beliefs. However, in the afternoon of Oct. 28, 2007, I found out first hand that I would be spending the spring 2008 semester as one of three interns in the White House Communications Office during President George W. Bush’s second term – an experience that would forever impact my views on United States politics.

One of my elder Chi Omega sorority sisters at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville did the White House speechwriting internship during the fall 2007 semester, and she was the one who inspired me to apply for the program. When I came to the University of Tennessee, I wanted to take a semester off to study abroad or engage in an internship program, and it was then I decided that perhaps D.C. could fulfill this role in my college experience.

I have not always had my eye on the political world. Originally from Loudon, a small, rural east Tennessee community with an estimated population of 4,000, I wanted to pursue a career in journalism so I could live the “Carrie Bradshaw dream” — move to New York following my college graduation, write about fashion, wear chic designer clothes and accessories as shown on HBO’s “Sex and the City” and enjoy brunch at a side-street cafe on a Saturday with friends discussing our current or non-existent romantic relationships. However, at the beginning of my sophomore year, as I began to “plan” out my life I began to realize that this New York fashion fantasy would not allow me to fulfill my goal of eventually settling down and raising a family; the long hours and extended traveling would always be an obstacle.

When I was in junior high school, NBC’s “The West Wing” was at its peak of television popularity. My mother was an avid viewer of the show after enjoying the film “The American President”, which influenced many features of “The West Wing”. I watched it with her occasionally on Wednesday evenings over our usual bag of Orville Redenbacher natural popcorn. I remember my favorite scenes of “The West Wing” were those that took place in the White House Press Briefing Room. Allison Janney’s character C.J., the press secretary, would always approach the podium with poise and dignity, taking crazed reporters’ questions, and I admired how, regardless of the question asked, she would deliver a response that was unbiased and pertinent. The White House’s Press Briefing Room in this show made the room appear to be a big, open conference room.

But as I attended my first White House Press Briefing, I was stunned and rather disappointed to discover that “The West Wing” really exaggerated the size of the room. The Press Briefing Room was about the size of a dining room in a fast food restaurant. I would estimate that eight to 10 rows of chairs lined the room with each major newspaper and broadcasting network having an assigned seat, with Helen Thomas, the Hearst newspaper columnist, sitting front and center because of her 57 years as a reporter covering the White House.

In New Line Cinema’s dark comedy,“Wag the Dog”, Robert De Niro portrays a Washington spin doctor who, only days before a presidential election, distracts the American people from a sex scandal by recruiting a Hollywood film producer, played by  Dustin Hoffman, to fabricate a war with Albania.

The film opens with a question: “Why does a dog wag its tail? Because a dog is smarter than its tail. If the tail were smarter, the tail would wag the dog.” So the film wonders whether the dog wags the tail, or does the tail wag the dog? We see the tail moving, and we assume the dog is wagging it, but perhaps the tail is wagging the dog, and the dog is enjoying the attention. It refers to making a situation seem something it is not by creating the situation in such a way that the spectators react in a predetermined manner. With its tagline reading, “A comedy about truth, justice and other special effects,” “Wag the Dog” presents a possible scenario of what happens behind closed doors at the White House, and the tactics used to cover up a political figure’s flaws.

As a White House intern, I did not have a complete “all access pass” to know every detail and action going behind closed doors in the East and West Wings. Thanks to a particular former White House intern who wore a blue dress, we interns were required to wear a bright, red intern-labeled badge which limited our access to certain areas of the White House without a proper escort.But I was provided President Bush’s daily schedule and his views on political issues.

If I did not stand out enough in the political world of D.C., my first day going into work provided more evidence for this point. It was an estimated 30 degrees Fahrenheit with a windchill of 24, and living up to my fashion standards, I was dressed in a black J. Crew office dress, black Ralph Lauren leather boots and a matching set of pink scarf and gloves. As I walked through the staff gate at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building and placed my purse on the security conveyor belt, one of the Secret Service men jokingly commented to his fellow guards, “Look, boys, she’s Reese Witherspoon from that ‘Legally Blonde’ movie.” I shot a smile and laughed, taking the guard’s comment as a compliment (I am a big fan of Reese) — but I also realized that I might not be taken seriously in my work if I became a victim of my own hair color (the blonde, ditzy sorority-girl type).

One of my responsibilities as a White House Communications intern was to assist the Policy and Procedures office with the compilation of a daily news bulletin, “The Morning Update.” I was in charge of searching for news headlines from major newspapers, highlighting important stories related to President Bush’s policies and important legislation discussed on Capitol Hill. I also conducted research by using LexisNexis to look for quotes from major newspapers’ editorials, senators, state representatives and other individuals for press releases that supported a current policy/issue the President wanted to pass into law. While I was conducting research for “The Morning Update” and press releases in the early days of my internship, I realized I was completely naive about the current events and issues affecting our country. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (known to all of my co-staffers as “FISA”) was a new term to me. Other than my Tennessee state representatives, I had only heard of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. As for the remaining members of Congress, I was clueless. But my research allowed me to become more familiar with these other important leaders.

My White House internship served as the “ah hah moment” in my life that told me I needed to become more informed of the current political activities transpiring in both Tennessee and Washington. This was also the time when I began reading news publications like “The Washington Post” and “The New York Times”, realizing their articles were more essential than the latest fashion trends modeled on the French couture runway or the latest hairstyles featuring bangs.

So, here I am two years later. I just completed a constituent-services internship for Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and am a 2010 college graduate. And I pay attention to the national news, following of the political happenings in D.C. But I miss knowing what’s going on behind the closed doors to the Eisenhower Executive Office Building and sometimes the West Wing.

I owe gratitude to my former co-staffers at the White House Communications Office. Not only did they give me the experience many professionals would envy, but they challenged me in ways I had never been challenged before. By producing press releases, I learned the value of accuracy and efficiency. I became a better team player by working with two male interns from other regions of the country. Ultimately, I began to pay more attention to current events — realizing that it is easier to produce press releases when I actually knew background information about the subject/issue at hand.

While I still remain up-to-date on the latest fashion trends and thumb through the current “Cosmopolitan” while going through the checkout lane at Target, I also fit NBC’s “National News” with Brian Williams in my daily schedule to hear what the latest buzz is on Capitol Hill and around the world. For me, continuing to educate myself on current events is important to not only develop informed positions on certain issues but to also enjoy the foundation of democracy.


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