I love The West Wing – well, really, anything written by Aaron Sorkin – love it so much that at the tender age of 19, I changed my major from Musical Theater to American Politics. I might have set off for Broadway, but instead I packed up my bags and headed to our nation’s capital the summer after college.
I wanted my life to be like The West Wing. I needed my life to be like The West Wing. I had given up 15 years of dance class, voice lessons, acting lessons and musicals and decided to radically change my life course… because of a TV show. I had visions of working with – nay, dating – guys like Sam Seaborn and Josh Lyman – hard working democrats who were the perfect combination of cocky and self-deprecating. I wanted to be a woman who would change the world one policy at a time, who followed in the footsteps of Hillary Clinton, DeeDee Myers and Condoleezza Rice.
And so, one temperate Northern California day the August after graduation, I set out for Washington, DC with no friends and no job. But I had all I thought I really needed – a political science degree and the complete West Wing box set. I could practically hear W. G. Snuffy Walden composing a theme song just for me when my plane landed at Reagan National Airport. I made my way to baggage claim and retrieved my two giant suitcases. I lugged them toward the exit with the confidence that Aaron Sorkin had given me all the tools I would need to make it in Washington, DC.
With trepidation, I walked toward the sliding doors of the airport, imagining myself walking straight into the beginning of my new life. The doors parted, the violin music in my head swelled and I was suddenly knocked back with the hot, thick air of a remote Sumatran jungle.
Turns out, there were a few things Aaron Sorkin forgot to tell me.
1. Washington, DC is a swamp
Washington, DC is hot and humid in the summer. Like really hot and humid. Like so hot and humid in the middle of August that people come home from work, strip off their suits and lie half-naked in the middle of their kitchen floors, just to feel a moment of relief. Aaron Sorkin never once mentioned this! Washington DC was humid?! He mentioned it got cold and that sometimes it would snow, but never once did he mention it was a humid! No one in The West Wing ever came into work and said, “It is so humid outside I had to commute to work in different clothes and change into my suit in the basement locker room.” Or “Hey, did you know DC was built on a swamp? Yeah, they dredged out some super low-lying marshland and said ‘This is gonna be awesome!’ and started throwing up marble buildings.” Let me tell you, it was so humid on that August day when I arrived I thought I was going to melt like a cheap scoop of ice cream.
2. People take the Metro
After pulling myself up by my ballet flats and mustering the strength to go on, I had to figure out how to get to my new house. In The West Wing, people rode in the motorcade or drove to the office. Well, I didn’t think the President was going to swing by to get me (though it seemed like something a gentleman from Texas might do), and I wasn’t old enough to rent a car, so I was left with two options: take a taxi or ride the metro. I stood in the sweltering heat and considered my options. I couldn’t be that far from DC. Toby, Josh and Donna had once walked from the airport to the White House. But no one on The West Wing had ever taken the metro. Or talked about taking the metro. Or even hinted that there might be a metro in the area. So I decided to play it safe and take a taxi. I would later discover that almost everyone who lives in Washington, DC takes the metro, especially from the airport.
3. Not everyone works at The White House
I finally arrived at my new place of residence; it was kind of like a boarding house. But less like Jo in Little Women and more like a giant dorm with no booze and no men allowed. A very nice girl asked if I wanted to come hang out with her and her friends. Score! I might have a friend by day’s end! I’m already grabbing drinks with people at the Hawk and Dove! I thought to myself. I wonder how many people here work at the White House? Maybe they will offer me a job!? I can be the next Ainsley Hayes! I’m sure they are looking for a witty democrat with a heart of gold to join the Administration! I could not have been more wrong about everything. No one worked at the White House. Sure, people worked for the Drug Enforcement Agency, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Health and Human Services and of course, Homeland Security. But no White House.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: I should have realized that a show about White House staffers wouldn’t really talk about the prevalence of civil servants. That show would have been called Bureaucrats and would probably have been really boring.
Older man in rumpled brown suit approaches Steve’s cubicle. Steve hastily minimizes Internet Explorer and pulls up Microsoft Word.
Boss: “Hey, Steve, how’s that memo about soil quality in Buck County Idaho coming along?”
Employee: “Pretty well, but I can’t seem to get the field office to confirm the date of the most recent sample collection.”
Boss: “Walk with me…to Starbucks. It’s Frappuccino happy hour!”
I thought at least one person would work at the White House. As it turned out, one guy had a friend who was an unpaid intern at the White House, but that was close as I got to a White House staffer – or a job.
My West Wing-themed life was not off to a promising start.