Spin doctor in the House: What can we learn from small-screen satire?

British TV has the splenetic Malcolm Tucker – but Americans had Toby Ziegler, the presidential adviser with a conscience. Simon Carr meets Richard Schiff
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The first thing Gordon Brown did after becoming Prime Minister was to come out onto Downing Street to tell the press about his "humility and pride" and to refer us to "the better angels of our nature". This didn't go over as he must have hoped. There was a question as to whether the transcendental was within his grasp, because it certainly wasn't within ours. It turned out that the angels were only occasionally present in Number 10 in the years that followed.

Obviously, Martin Sheen as The West Wing's President Bartlet would have managed the line, and we would have responded and angels would have won the day. In general, the writers and actors on that seven-series US show could and did, get away with anything they liked. "You know that when smallpox was eradicated, it was considered the single greatest humanitarian achievement of this century? Surely we can do it again, as we did in the time when our eyes looked towards the heavens and, with outstretched fingers, we touched the face of God." That's a paragraph that couldn't be written here in Britain. Our writers couldn't write it, our actors couldn't say it, and the listeners couldn't hear it. It's one of the differences between us over here and them over there.

Anyway, here we are at the Covent Garden Hotel with one of the angels. He's Richard Schiff; he played Toby, the communications director for The West Wing.

That is, the Alastair Campbell figure, but in this case "the conscience of the White House". Schiff was still in London for the premiere of The Infidel, and he has been stranded by the ash, so we still have him. The seriousness with which he recalls The West Wing experience, and indeed his approach to his art and work, is also different from the way the British approach theirs.

He has just come back from Russia, where he sat in on the on-going second trial of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the oil oligarch arrested by Putin. There's a film Schiff is thinking of making about it. From the way he talks, it's clear he believes this film, this story will move its audiences, will work on and change the people who watch it. That's the intention, the ambition, even the expectation – that something important is going to be attempted. It's not a feeling we're much used to in British films; I haven't experienced it since watching The Killing Fields all those years ago. There is an activist sense about Schiff. He reminds me of something a rugby player once told me – that when he hits a ruck he actually expects to move it. Maybe over here we've been disabled by some overactive sense of irony, or self-consciousness, or shyness, or fear of exposure. We expect to fail.

Here is a core value of the show, as voiced by Richard Schiff's Toby: " We have to say what we feel, that government – no matter what its failures in the past and in times to come for that matter – government can be a place where people come together and where no one gets left behind ... An instrument of good."

We hear things like that from British politicians but we don't get carried off by them. No, the British political show – the shadow of The West Wing's great source of light – is The Thick of It. And the core value of that show can be inferred from Malcolm Tucker's observation: "If some **** can **** something up, that **** will pick the worst possible time to ******* **** it up because that ****'s a ****."

Good people go into politics to make the world a better place; but only in America. It's no wonder The West Wing was so popular in Downing Street during the Blair years.

Let's remind ourselves of two versions of the same joke. The West Wing way it goes like this:

Bartlet: "You told the press I have a secret plan to fight inflation?"

Josh: "No, I did not. Let me be absolutely clear, I did not do that. Except, yes, I did that."

In The Thick of It, the same joke goes:

Tucker: "Right. How're you doing in sorting out whether he lied or not, you doing ok?"

Olly: "Pretty well, yeah."

Tucker: "Is that a lie?"

Olly: "Yeah."

Tucker: "That is not fucking funny, you retard!"

We laugh at both, but we are shocked at ourselves for laughing at Tucker (because so very often we are laughing with, and not at, him).

Back in Covent Garden, we have another strand weaving into this encounter: Martin Sixsmith happens to turn up to join us. It is his book, Putin's Oil: The Yukos Affair and the Struggle for Russia, that Schiff has optioned. Sixsmith was the man who was done over by the Downing Street machine, if you remember, after another press officer's email reacted to the World Trade Centre collapse as "a good day to get out anything we want to bury".

Sixsmith stuck to his guns over the affair, and took heavy fire from the political advisers, both professionally and personally. His career in government is testimony to the Thick view of politics rather than the West view. Why, I asked him, en passant, did he ever take that job as a Government press officer?

Sixsmith smiled in a rueful way, and quoted Tony Blair's words from 1997: " 'A new day has dawned, has it not?' I believed it."

It was a short day in Downing Street, the fog came down soon enough; the cynics and sceptics found they had much to play with.

Across the Atlantic, as Schiff puts it: "There is still an American view that good intentions will be rewarded. That working hard will bring good things. There are perversions of that from both sides – there are those who feel they have a right to a part of that dream without the work, or that some have no right to the dream no matter how hard they work, because they're immigrants." The dream, or at least the idea, of "America" is still there, still has cultural power. It's old-fashioned, in the light of Britain's entrenched and defensive cynicism, but it has the power to motivate. It moves people.

A lot of Frank Capra's work came to be known as 'Capracorn' because it can be sentimental. But his are my favourites," says Schiff. "Meet John Doe. Have you seen that?"

This had Gary Cooper playing a tramp who gets taken up by newspaper executives to front a back-to-basics, good neighbour campaign. They write speeches for him, he inspires a movement, and when betrayed by the executives he launches into a game-changing speech of his own, all impromptu. "He had become the man he played."

That sort of thing happened round The West Wing. The NBC show took so much from life that it played back into it. The show of show business affected the show of politics. When they broadcast a fictional live debate between two presidential candidates, the preparation wasn't different from real politicians prepping themselves. It was scripted and semi-improvised – as it is when real candidates really appear. Gordon is never anything other than scripted and semi-improvised. They all are. And without some acting ability, the message doesn't get across. Politicians become actors, in part. Do actors become communications directors?

Schiff hadn't become the man he played. But it certainly did affect him. He recalls: "I talked to Dee Dee Myers, who was [Bill] Clinton's press secretary. She said there was one awakening moment in her career when she was with Clinton and recommended a certain stance, and 'the next day I saw my influence on every front page of every newspaper. And I was knocked out by how important my job was.'

"When she told me that I thought, my character would never forget that, that when he influenced the President it would mean that someone might live and someone else might die. So I always felt Toby had the power to change policy. He was the conscience of the White House. I made him burdened. He had to carry that around."

I asked, "Did you smile more before The West Wing?"

"I smiled a lot more after."

Then he smiled, and, yes, it is a noteworthy event with Richard.

And then there is a crossover from the show to the show ground, from art to life again. He talks about the character as more than a fiction for one good reason – West Wing characters do have a level of reality to them that our actors, characters, parts, don't have. They do have inspirational power. They do motivate real people to do real things.

Schiff again: "When I went out campaigning for [US Vice-President] Joe Biden, I was swarmed about by the Obama volunteer guys. They'd swarm, talk, laugh, ask me if I'd met him. And then eventually they'd say, they'd whisper it to me, 'You're the reason I'm here. You are the reason I'm working on this campaign.' And that was real, because those volunteers were why Obama won. They made the difference in the caucus states. Mass canvassing made the difference. So many volunteers. And they were there because of The West Wing."

Interestingly, the presidential campaign of the Latino candidate (the TV campaign, that is) was based on Barack Obama, years before Obama had decided to run, before he was even a senator. The producers looked for an out-of-the-way politician who couldn't conceivably run for President. Everyone knew it was going to be Hillary running, to complete the dynastic Bush-Clinton-Bush-Clinton succession.

Obama was the least likely candidate, and so they based the character on him. Extraordinary that it should be so, and that life should follow on. But there it is, the peculiar mix of show business, scripting, story-telling and the currency of events. No one will admit to believing that the West Wing episodes showing an ethnic outsider prepared the ground for Obama.

But equally, it's not impossible that Obama himself saw the show and thought, "Yes, I can." Obama himself, maybe he might have said quietly, out of the side of his mouth to the West Wing producers, "You are the reason I'm here."

How did it have such an effect on people? How did a TV show mobilise real people? The level of reality is in fact amazing. The stories were as one enthusiast says, "ripped from the headlines". Social security reform, tax credits for college fees, getting a downed pilot back from North Korea, estate tax, the strategic petroleum reserve, fuel emission standards. The census! "I had a senator say that he'd been trying to get the importance of the census over to people for years," Schiff says, "and we'd done it in one episode."

Where did that come from? It came from expert advice. The money that the US can put into a hit show makes a difference. They have teams of writers. Ideas and stories are contested. A big character in the show will have his or her own writer. This gives texture.

They had consultants on the show that we wouldn't aspire to over here. True, The Thick of It had a swearing consultant, Ian Martin, and as we know, he is a master of his craft. But on The West Wing, they had Al Gore's speech writer, Bill Clinton's chief economic adviser, and his pollster. They were all advising and shaping and adding detail and texture. One Lawrence O'Donnell, formerly chief of staff of the New York senator Daniel Moynihan, was a producer and writer – and even appeared on camera.

It is the show that politicians, activists, volunteers and quite a tranche of viewers found to be the "fantasy White House" that kept their spirits up during the Bush years. It can't have had a national effect on hearts and minds because President Bush got back with an increased majority. But the warmth it created shows at least an appetite for the angels.

As the evening went on we were joined by Jay Newton-Small from Time magazine. She has covered the White House for some years, and has seen all seven series. I told her that Schiff had campaigned for Biden, and that volunteers used to come up to him and say, 'You are the reason I am here'. She said she'd been to some of those rallies herself.

"And did you go up to Schiff and say, 'You're the reason I'm here'?"

She laughed. "No! I went up to Lawrence O'Donnell and said it to him."