From The West Wing to the campaign trail

His brilliant portrayal of a president's loyal lieutenant electrified 'The West Wing'. But this year, as the Democratic primaries got under way, Richard Schiff wasn't just playing a role – he was working behind the scenes to get his guy a shot at the White House

Everything in America is big. We like that word. We make big movies; we have big business; in Montana, we call the sky the Big Sky; our military is bigger; we call our biggest desert Death Valley; our biggest canyon is Grand, as is our biggest hit in a baseball game, the grand slam; our plains are the Great Plains; our greatest comic-book hero is Super, as is our greatest sporting event, the Super Bowl. So when it comes to the biggest day in our presidential election cycle, we call it Super Tuesday. This is the day when 24 states hold their Democratic Party primaries and, on the Republican side, 21 states hold theirs. Fifty-two per cent of the Democratic delegates are chosen this day and 41 per cent of Republican delegates.

We are a competitive culture. Since this Super Tuesday phase has all but chosen the parties' candidates in recent history, many states that in the past have been rendered irrelevant because their primaries fell at a later date have moved their primaries to the big day, so as to be a more vital part of the process. The task at hand for the candidates is daunting. They now have to puddle-hop from town to town and state to state, covering vast distances in borrowed jets (or crop-dusters, for the less well-funded), constantly adjusting schedules to take account of the latest polling and budget constraints. The campaign will get nastier, the TV advertising will get more negative, the speeches will get more grandiose and the press coverage more confusing.

I prefer the old days of politics. Way back in December of 2007, I was in Iowa for the first primary campaign. I had decided to throw my meagre but enthusiastic support behind Joe Biden, the Senator from Delaware running for the Democratic nomination. Traditionally, Iowa has been the first stop in the great trek.

It is a small state in the Midwest farm belt. They grow corn and soya beans, eat big breakfasts with heavy emphasis on meat, sit on big tractors all day, and go to church on Sundays. However, Iowa doesn't hold the traditional primary, whereby voters go into election booths and pull levers or punch cards for their candidate of choice. In Iowa, they hold caucuses. Each county or district holds meetings in town halls or pizza restaurants to choose delegates, who then pledge to vote for a candidate at the national party convention in the summer. The meetings are closed, but the voting is open, in that every voice is heard and voting is public. Your neighbour knows where you stand.

Caucus rules state that if your candidate of choice doesn't achieve 15 per cent of the vote in the first round of voting, you must choose another candidate for the next vote. This opens the door for deal-making and realignments in which a candidate can get 20 per cent of the first vote, for instance, and end the night with 80 per cent of that caucus's delegates. I guess this is the farmers' way. It's small-town politics. Every individual has the potential to change everything. It's downright un-American.

****

Independence, Iowa: my first stop with the Biden camp is somewhat inauspicious. Bill's Pizza and Smokehouse is busy on this Saturday afternoon. I follow the Senator inside with the small greeting committee who met us in the freezing, snowy cold. My heart sinks a bit as we sweep past the large and boisterous diners, into a back room that has been cordoned off for our event. Maybe 14 people await us. They are polite, but look hungry. A state congresswoman speaks awkwardly for a while and then introduces me.

I eye the audience. There's an old guy to my left who stares at me as if he's got a rifle in the truck that he might just get up and fetch at any moment. At the next table, there's a couple with two fidgety, soon-to-be-crying infants. I spy a couple of smilers in the gaggle, two women who seem to be sympathetic to the pathetic nature of my task. Or they might just be waiting for an opportunity to persuade me to join them at church in the morning.

I begin. I tell them the story of my Christmas dinner, just a couple of days before. I tell them that a clan of my Irish-Catholic in-laws descended on our house in Los Angeles. That I was asked – no, confronted – by all of them with particular curiosity – no, scepticism – as to why I chose to desert the family during the holiday week – and why Iowa, of all places. "I'm going to stump for Joe Biden."

I tell this intimate gathering in Iowa that the reaction surprised me. "I love that guy!" is the response I got. I tell them how everywhere I go, and everyone who asks me what I'm doing in Iowa, when I say it's to stump for Joe Biden, I get the same response: "I love that guy." But that they also say, invariably: "But does he have a chance in hell?" I tell them that the Irish-Catholic clan and I fell in to a happy debate of our own over Christmas dinner and every night. That my brother-in-law from Alaska supported John Edwards and my brother-in-law from Tennessee was a Clinton man and my mother- and father-in-law, despite being old Kennedy Democrats, had actually supported two successive Bush campaigns. That got a small, but telling, groan from the group.

And then I told them that after three nights of the Schiff-Kelley "caucus", after debating issue after issue and measuring characteristics and qualities and what it will take to deal with this end-of-days scenario that Bush has left us, we all, every one of us, had decided to support the Senator from Delaware, Joe Biden. That served as my introduction. I eyed the guy with the gun in the truck. He still frowned. The two smiling women were still smiling, but it looked like the Iowa weather had frozen the smiles to their faces. The two infants were now wailing. Joe Biden then came over and gave me a handshake and a thank-you.

I assessed the damage I'd done. I thought I'd cooled an already frigid group. I hadn't handled my disappointment about the size of this political "rally" at all well. My story would play well in later crowds, but my delivery to this maddeningly midget-sized gathering was weak to say the least. Joe Biden then warmed them up. He spoke confidently and personally; looked each of them in the eye and occasionally reached over to graze an arm or shoulder. He talked about small problems and personal struggles, and how they related to the big picture in Iraq and Pakistan. How college-education affordability and healthcare and farm subsidies are connected to the world overseas in a way we never knew before. How the national debt from the disaster of our Iraq war will beat down our domestic agendas. How we will be paying for years to come for the care of our veterans. How a plan for Iraq has to be historically and culturally respectful to the region. These were themes he would touch on everywhere we went over the next few days, and everywhere he would tell this story boldly and tell it well. He would answer impressively difficult and sometimes personal questions on subjects from ethanol production to his Senate vote on cluster bombs. This little crowd didn't deter him for a second. He paid great respect to this democratic process of ours by paying great respect to these 14 people.

What a great lesson for me. I remembered my days doing plays in church basements and small off-Broadway houses, when the cast on stage often outnumbered the audience. I remembered how hard that was, but how necessary it felt to dig even deeper and do even better. I warmed up as we plodded on: to the Pizza Ranch on Main Street (what else?) in Manchester; to Johnson's Restaurant in Elkader; to Waterloo in Black Hawk County; to Mason City, Dubuque and Des Moines. I made jokes about the cold. I told stories about my sister-in-law in Des Moines. I poked fun at the mayor of Mason City for regaling us with the saga of their local waste facility as it related to the recent floods, while in shirt sleeves in the sub-zero chill outside the Pizza Ranch.

We went into small homes crowded with friendly neighbours, and large museums with huge gatherings that resembled more of the rallying I had expected. We puddle-hopped on planes and caravanned in SUVs. We scored a big win when we were given a jet to fly into Mason City. Joe; his son, Beau; Evan, a staffer from Washington DC; and I crammed into the private jet. We told golf stories and family histories and bad jokes, and remembered that Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens crashed not too far from where we were, in similarly bad weather.

Joe asked me what I thought of the other candidates in the field. I gave a character profile of each one, in a detailed and personal way. Joe listened intently. I had first met him in South Carolina after an early debate. We met in the courtyard of a hotel and had pizzas and cokes while he asked a bunch of questions. He asked how I thought he did in the debates. I told him, without mincing words, how I thought he could do better. He asked what issues were most pressing on my mind. I told him how civil liberties and right-to-privacy violations by the current administration threatened the very nature of democracy, and compromised us as a free people. He asked if I thought the Yankees would win it all this year. I told him no, I feared the Red Sox would take it all again this year.

****

I have been fortunate, through my acting career, to have met with formidable people in our political world. I have met senators and congressmen and secretaries of state, presidential nominees, generals on the Joint Chiefs of Staff and ambassadors. I had dinner with President Clinton and spent an entire day with him, when we were given honorary doctorates from my alma mater. He's a fascinating man, as are all of them. But other than the obvious showbusiness fare, rarely did anyone ask me a question of substance. Mostly, I listened. I quietly listened to posits and pontifications, theories and solutions, questions asked rhetorically – and quickly answered. Joe Biden is the only one of them who is genuinely curious; who seems to have a profound affection for people and their varying views of the world; who isn't looking for support or potential adversaries, but for what concerns us and what worries us and what he can do about it. The more we talked and stumped together, the more I found myself proud to know the guy. And the more I hoped he had a chance in hell to win this thing.

But Joe Biden didn't do so well in Iowa. He needed a good showing to be viable in New Hampshire, the next stop on the primary railroad. He didn't get it, and soon dropped out of the race. From what I understand, the Obama people had made a deal with the Bill Richardson camp. (Richardson is the Governor of New Mexico and a candidate whom I admire, but who would also drop out after New Hampshire.) Obama's people would pledge their extra delegates to Richardson where possible, giving him the 15 per cent he needed to have delegates counted; and, where possible, Richardson's delegates would switch to Obama when they didn't make the 15 per cent on the first ballot. Richardson ended up surpassing Biden, despite the polls, which had showed the latter clearly ahead. The deal had broken Biden's campaign. By the way, Biden's camp had been offered the same deal – and passed on principle. Obama, of course, ended up winning Iowa.

Everywhere I go around this vast country, I get a common response: "I wish The West Wing were real. I wish we had a government and a president like you had on your show." I got some comments like that even when I was in Britain last year, performing on the West End stage. The West Wing had a couple of episodes that flashed back to the first Bartlet campaign. In one, while in New Hampshire, Toby Ziegler (my character) is sitting in a bar, having a cigar and a Scotch. A woman sidles up to him and asks: "Are you one of those political operatives?" Toby says yes. The woman asks: "Have you ever won?" I remember when we shot this. I took an inordinately long pause. Toby spent a good minute pressing his mind to remember. He couldn't recall one instance in his past when he had been on the winning side.

That was the moment I fell in love with my character. Not that he was a loser, but it had never occurred to him to keep score; he had never considered winning as his raison d'être for a life in politics. He was a man of conscience who followed his heart, and consequences be damned.

West Wing fans will remember that Bartlet entered the campaign not expecting to win but, at the very least, to influence the national discussion. Joe Biden did just that. He had been talking about Pakistan as our greatest threat for months, and now it is central to the debates. He had been talking about troop withdrawal from Iraq and an exit strategy with realistic concerns and logistic complexities, which all candidates now address, instead of making promises with no chance of realistic expectation. He talked about bipartisanship as a necessity, which all now use in their stump speeches. He talked about experience and international relationships, which all now boast, whether real or not, as part of their CVs. To have been a part, however small, of this great process is an honour, and something I will cherish. It is so much better in real life than on a television sound stage. Iowa is what is great about the great democracy. It is house to house, Pizza Ranch to smokehouse, veteran centres to town halls, people to people.

Now, we approach the bigger picture. Super Tuesday has taken over the political landscape; 24 states instead of one. Television blitzes and stadium speeches, dogfights for debates, lobbies and special interests plotting attacks – and millions upon millions of dollars raised and spent. Ted and Caroline Kennedy have endorsed Obama this week. Kathleen Kennedy and Robert Jr have come out for Hillary. The campaign now is a giant reality-TV show, or a great sporting event, almost as compelling as this weekend's Super Bowl. Whatever it is, it's big. It's bigger than big. It's Super Tuesday.

Meanwhile, back at the farm, the mayor of Mason City tries to figure out the sewage. Did you know that Mason City was the home of Meredith Willson, composer of The Music Man? Was the final stop for Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens when their plane crashed? Is the home of the largest collection of Bill Baird's puppets? Just some things you'd never learn on Super Tuesday.

Stars on the campaign trail

1. Barack Obama

The most vocal celebrity supporter of the 46-year-old Democrat candidate is the talk show queen Oprah Winfrey, about whom Obama recently joked that should be his vice-president. Winfrey has hit the campaign trail with Obama in Iowa and New Hampshire and raised funds for him, saying he is worth her "going out on a limb for". Other A-list campaigners include Scarlett Johansson (who stepped out for Obama at the Iowa caucuses), George Clooney, Matt Damon, Larry David and Ben Affleck, who have all publicly backed him. Will Smith pledged "to do what he could" for Obama, according to the New York Post gossip column, Page Six.



2. Mike Huckabee

If you're casting yourself as a political tough-guy, who would you rather have joining you on the campaign trail than the legendary star of Delta Force and Bee Gee lookalike, Chuck Norris? He is Huckabee's most vocal supporter, having ridden the campaign bus, appeared in public alongside the candidate, starred in advertising for him and even headed up fundraising webcasts from his Texas ranch.

Norris, a martial-arts expert and Seventies throwback, has had the good grace to poke fun at his involvement, by releasing recently a satirical list of the things that he, Norris, would do as president. These include, perhaps worryingly: "Increase jobs in America by sending ninja teams to steal them back from other countries." It hasn't been all plain-sailing, however. Recently, Norris had to apologise publicly for poking fun at Huckabee's septuagenarian rival, John McCain, on account of his age.



3. Hillary Clinton

As if her husband's endorsement weren't enough, the former First Lady counts among her celebrity supporters Ugly Betty lead actress America Ferrera, who heads up the "youth outreach" programme for the Clinton campaign. "This election is too important to stand on the sidelines, especially for my generation," burbled the 23-year-old actress recently. Other Hillary advocates include the reclusive singer Barbra Streisand, Cheers bartender Ted Danson and Rush Hour director Brett Ratner. Last week, ABC news reported that Steven Spielberg and David Geffen, the movie moguls who once contributed cash to Clinton's campaign, are now hosting a party for her biggest rival, Obama. But a spokesperson for the duo said that they had not "officially" endorsed anybody yet.



4. John Edwards

Sadly, the only support this 54-year-old Democratic hopeful can muster are the singers Jackson Browne ("Running on Empty", "The Pretender") and Bonnie Raitt, along with the actor James Denton (Desperate Housewives).



5. Rudy Giuliani

This former New York mayor and Republican candidate, 63, counts among the luminaries backing him one John Voight, the veteran Hollywood actor and father of full-lipped Angelina Jolie, who, while speaking to a CBS television crew earlier this month from Giuliani's campaign bus, jabbed his finger in the air and looked suitably incensed. He said: "Giuliani has got a plan; he's a problem-solver. We have to be safe and he knows where the enemy is." Giuliani has also received financial support from Jerry Bruckheimer, the powerhouse producer behind such movies as Top Gun and Pirates of the Caribbean, Joel Surnow, creator of the hit TV drama 24, the actor and director Robert Duvall, and Kelsey Grammer, star of Frasier.



6. John McCain

John Sidney McCain III, 71, the former naval aviator and Republican candidate, can boast the backing of Rambo himself, Sylvester "Sly" Stallone. This week, one New York Times wag speculated that the fourth Rambo film, soon to hit British screens, advocates the kind of hawkish foreign policy that McCain would admire. McCain has also said that Stallone will "get" Chuck Norris, which is enough to give anybody the willies. Further to this, McCain has received donations from Barry Diller, the former head of Paramount Pictures, and the actors Rip Torn and Dick Van Patten (of Robin Hood: Men in Tights and Baywatch, um, "fame").



7. Ron Paul

This 72-year-old Texan Republican has the support of comedian and TV star Bill Maher, singer Aimee Allen, who contributed to the soundtrack of last year's remake of Hairspray, and wrestler Sean Morley aka WWE hulk Val Venis – although he is unlikely to be a match for Stallone or the mighty Chuck.

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