Claire Handscombe captures the impact “The West Wing” has had on people across the globe in “Walk With Us: How The West Wing Changed Our Lives.”
By Julie Gallagher
There are certain television shows that seem to define an era, shows that continue to draw in new audiences even years after the series finale has aired. Claire Handscombe delves into how one such show, The West Wing, which aired from 1999 to 2006, has influenced people in a myriad of ways. In her collection of essays, “Walk With Us: How The West Wing Changed Our Lives,” Handscombe explores how the Washington-based fictional show, known for its compelling politically-themed plots, witty humor and relatable characters, has impacted viewers of all ages.
Washington Life: “Walk With Us: How The West Wing Changed Our Lives” is a collection of essays from people across the globe who felt “The West Wing” impacted their lives in some way. How did you meet or find these people?
Claire Handscombe: This book started out as an assignment in my Literary Journalism class during my MFA in Creative Writing. For that assignment, I set up a Twitter account – @wwchangedme – specifically to look for people with stories. I put out a call that way, and was retweeted by several high profile accounts, including some West Wing role players. I also put out a call for submissions on various writing websites and Facebook groups for writers and for West Wing fans, and took out an ad in Poets and Writers magazine.
WL: What was the process of putting together this book?
CH: I interviewed some of the respondents; others sent me essays. I chose and edited the best essays and some salient quotes from the interviews, and grouped them together under different themes.
WL: What inspired you to put together “Walk With Us?” Was there a specific moment when you had this idea?
CH: The West Wing changed my life – I moved to D.C. because of the show, started writing again because of the show, and have had so many adventures because of it. I knew I couldn’t be the only one, and I wanted to explore that.
WL: What is your favorite episode of “The West Wing?” Who is your favorite character?
CH: My favorite is actually a double episode – the first two of Season Two. It’s when we find out in flashbacks how each character got involved in the Bartlet campaign, and I think it’s particularly poignant because we know them already. It might not have been as powerful if it had come earlier on in the show, or if weren’t braided with the other things that happen during those episodes. (I am avoiding spoilers, hence the vagueness!) In one of my very favourite scenes, we find out how Donna starts working for Josh. He’s my favourite character, but she would be a close second – the two of them together are an essential factor in my love for the show.
WL: What about the show do you think makes people love it so much? Why do you think it’s so relatable?
CH: I knew nothing about American politics when I started watching this show, but it gripped me immediately because of how smart the writing is. I knew that I didn’t understand, but I also think I knew – though I couldn’t have articulated it this way at the time, probably – that I would enjoy the process of getting to understand it.
I don’t know that everybody loves it for the same reasons as I do. The superb writing and wonderful acting are probably universal reasons. For me, as an idealist, it’s wonderful to watch a show where people are determined to make the world a better place. I also like how wholesome it is. I like that there’s no swearing, no violence, no sex on screen. There aren’t many shows like that anymore. It doesn’t need the sensationalism of those things, and I appreciate that. Aaron Sorkin might be the only person who can hold viewers’ attention by having characters walk up and down corridors using acronyms like OEOB and DCCC.
WL: You now live in DC. Does the Washington that is portrayed in “The West Wing” match the Washington you now call home?
CH: Yes and no! It’s full of impossibly smart people and earnest young men and people with law degrees and nerdy types who love politics more than life itself. It’s also full of people whose main aim in any interaction is to see how you can be useful to them, how you can help them climb the career. That said, there are also plenty of people who aren’t that way at all. I’m not currently directly involved in politics but I did intern in Congress and that was a wonderful experience. I learned so much and it sometimes feel like being on set of The West Wing. Nothing makes you feel quite as important and accomplished as the sound of your boots’ heels down the corridors of Rayburn, even if you’re just delivering holiday cards.
Also, there’s so much more to DC than politics! You see that a little on the show when the characters go to the Kennedy Center or eat in restaurants. There’s such great culture here, and a thriving literary scene.
The first time I ever visited DC was by night, driving around the monuments: they looked just like they do on The West Wing, and I fell in love.
WL: What would you tell someone who has not watched “The West Wing” – why should someone watch the show?
CH: There are a million reasons, from its 26 Emmys to young Rob Lowe in a tux to the extraordinary and musically pleasing writing to the fact that it will help restore your faith in what America can be at its best. Also, you’ll understand so many references that your DC colleagues probably drop on at least a weekly basis. And why a lot of those people are in DC in the first place.
WL: Can other “The West Wing” lovers submit their own personal stories?
CH: I intend to release a longer and updated version of this book in a few years’ time, so I’m always happy to hear from people! They can contact me via the Twitter account or the Facebook page.
Visit westwingbook.com to learn more about the book and Claire Handscombe.