The West Wing Connection: Obama and Rahm Emanuel

A good, long presidential campaign often features characters and scenarios that seem to come straight out of fiction. In the case of the just-concluded race for the White House, that's literally true, at least if you believe those behind The West Wing.

Fans of the NBC series had noted that the recent presidential campaign seemed to bear some resemblance to the campaign that played out during the final two seasons of The West Wing. The fictional battle for the White House matched up Democrat Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits) against Republican Arnold Vinick (Alan Alda).

Santos had numerous things in common with Barack Obama aside from being a member of an ethnic minority. He was young and inexperienced for a presidential candidate. He had a background in big city politics (Houston in the case of Santos) and had two young children. He began his race for the White House as a major longshot against better known names, but drew attention due to his charisma. The Vinick character likewise had aspects in common with John McCain, in that he was a Senate veteran who was often on the outs with more conservative elements in the Republican Party. Another obvious parallel is that both Santos and Obama were winners.

Many of these parallels are just a coincidence, considering that The West Wing ended in the spring of 2006, and the idea of a President Obama would have seemed far fetched at the time. But there is something to the resemblance between Santos and Obama. As producers on The West Wing began to prepare for the final act of the series, which would involve the race to see who would succeed President Jed Bartlet, they needed to consider who would fill the key roles of the Democratic and Republican candidates, and what sort of characteristics they would have.

When the brass settled on the idea of the Matt Santos character, the next step was to flesh him out--specifically, get an idea of how a youngish minority might make his way as a pioneer in national politics. In 2004, there was a distinct lack of role models in that department, but at that summer's Democratic national convention, Obama, then a Senate candidate, put himself on the map with a stirring keynote address. The speech caught the attention of West Wing producer Eli Attie, a former Democratic speechwriter. Sensing that Obama might be a real life embodiment of the presidential candidate the show was envisioning, Attie sought to pick the brain of Obama adviser David Axelrod, seeking advice on how to make the Santos campaign more realistic.

After his narrow victory on The West Wing ("narrow" being one part of the fictional scenario that did not come to pass in reality), Santos asked Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford), who had originally urged him to run in the first place, to stay on in the White House as his chief of staff. This is another parallel at work, since it has been claimed that the actual incoming Obama chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, was something of a model for Lyman (Emanuel was a staffer in the Clinton White House).

The Lyman/Emanuel comparisons were not much noted at the time, although since Emanuel wasn't all that famous when the show debuted in 1999, there would not have been much need to mention it. But Whitford looks a bit like Emanuel and the men are only a month apart in age; also, the fictional Lyman and real Emanuel are both Jewish and both known for being excitable. So a connection between the two is certainly plausible. And there are reasons why Emanuel's name might come up in Hollywood: his brother Ari is a noted agent who is rumored to be the primary inspiration for Ari Gold, Jeremy Piven's profane Entourage character.

The more you look at The West Wing and Obama, the more similarities you see. Obama suffered a serious personal loss on the eve of the election with the death of his grandmother, while Santos's victory was marred by the death of his vice presidential candidate Leo McGarry (actor John Spencer had died unexpectedly halfway through the final season). And Smits brought matters full circle by appearing at Obama campaign rallies down the stretch, including the Florida rally featured in the Obama "infomercial" of October 29.

In its early years The West Wing was often cited, by both fans and detractors, as a fantasy version of the Clinton administration, which was winding down when the series debuted. How strange that its final episodes ended up forecasting so much about the next Democratic presidency.