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On and off the set of ''The West Wing''

On and off the set of ”The West Wing”–Behind the scenes of Aaron Sorkin’s hit show

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The President is hopping mad.

”George W. Bush is a wimp! Jesus, man, gimme a break: This is a spoiled-rotten kid who doesn’t have a clue — who doesn’t have a heart! He’s a very dangerous man. He makes his father look like a raving liberal!”

That’s Martin Sheen offering election-year analysis in the thundering, authoritative manner he brings to his role as Commander-in-Chief, President Josiah Bartlet, in NBC’s hit political drama The West Wing.

”This guy I play,” says the 59-year-old actor, ”he has a liberal agenda; he’s in the right corner on all the issues, from the environment to women’s rights to labor and the arms race.” Gee, isn’t there anything he doesn’t like about this fictitious President dreamed up by the show’s creator and writer, Aaron Sorkin?

”Well, I don’t like attacking an Arab country every time there’s a terrorist [problem],” he says referring to an air strike Bartlet ordered in the series’s third episode. ”I prefer to settle these problems diplomatically, nonviolently. But that’s me; I’m not the President.” In fact, Sheen, who in his private life has been arrested 61 times during political protests of such issues as nuclear armament, concludes: ”I think the republic is actually safer that I’m not in the White House.”

But on average, nearly 13 million Americans are in President Bartlet’s White House every Wednesday night at nine, making West Wing one of the season’s biggest freshman dramatic hits, and giving the lie to the common TV wisdom that shows about politics are Nielsen-box washouts. The crackling, credible problems Sorkin dreams up for Bartlet and his senior staff — including Rob Lowe as deputy communications director Sam Seaborn, L.A. Law‘s John Spencer as chief of staff Leo McGarry, Bradley Whitford as deputy chief of staff Josh Lyman, Richard Schiff as hangdog communications director Toby Ziegler, and Allison Janney as press secretary C.J. Cregg — are engrossing, enlightening, and enraging the nation during this election year.

Did you see the recent episode in which Leo, who’s nearly been forced out of his job when a White House staffer leaks the fact that he’s been treated for alcohol and drug dependency, allows the rat staffer, whom Lowe’s Sam had fired, to stay at her job?

”I got three e-mails from the White House saying ‘That girl’s ass stays fired!”’ says the 38-year-old Sorkin. E-mails from whom exactly? ”Oh, various staffers — I can’t divulge their names.”

From his wide grin, it’s obvious that this is the kind of high-level rabble-rousing in which Sorkin revels. The man who writes or cowrites almost every episode of West Wing as well as nearly every installment of ABC’s innovative sitcom Sports Night is sitting in his Burbank office, wearing an Amherst sweatshirt and gobbling fistfuls of Good & Plentys out of a salad bowl. He washes the candy down with one of the two dozen bottles of Yoo-Hoo chocolate drink on a table nearby. For Sports Night, Sorkin draws on his own love of sports and ESPN for inspiration; for West Wing, he relies on research he did while writing the 1995 feature film The American President, not to mention a cadre of real-world politicos — on his staff are former Clinton press secretary Dee Dee Myers, Carter administration insider and pollster Pat Caddell, and Lawrence O’Donnell Jr., a political columnist and former aide to Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan.