0.12: How Barack Obama Shaped Matthew Santos (with David Axelrod and Eli Attie)


Support. For today's episode comes from Wells Fargo with more than three hundred fifty mortgage free homes donated to military veterans in Virginia, Maryland and nationwide. More at stories dot W, F dot com slash military. The west wing weekly is brought to you by ZipRecruiter. Hiring needs to be hard way. Back in two thousand fifteen if you're trying to start westering podcast, you had to find somebody who is on the west wing, go to college with them retroactively, Email them, harass them, and eventually try and talk them into doing it. But things are different now at ZipRecruiter. That's right now, there's one place you can go where hiring is simple fast. And smart. That's right. That place is ZipRecruiter. Ziprecruiter is so affective that four out of five employers who post on ZipRecruiter get a quality candidate through the site within the first day the first day and right now our listeners can try ZipRecruiter for the low price of free at this exclusive web address ZipRecruiter dot com slash west wing. You can try it for free at ZipRecruiter dot com slash W. E S T W, I N G that smells west wing. Ziprecruiter, the smartest way to hire. You're listening to the west wing weekly. I'm Richie case your way, and I'm Joshua Malina. And today, we've got a special season six bonus episode for you coming off the heels of our discussion last week with ally Addy about the episode for Dona. We're so thrilled to be joined today by David Axelrod. He's the former chief strategist and senior advisor to President Barack Obama. He's the founder and director of the university of Chicago institute of politics, and he's the host of his own podcast, the X files, we're also joined by our old friend Eli Attie, west wing writer, and producer and former chief speechwriter to vice president gore. Thank you both for joining us. Great pleasure to be with you today. We're talking about how the character of congressman Matt Santos was influenced by then Senator Barack Obama at the time of his creation. So I'd like to start a conversation by going back to the summer of two thousand four alike. Can you should let us know? What was going on that summer? Yeah. In is amazing. As it seems the character was really influenced by then state legislator. Bronco parma. We have kind of a crazy thing to think about basically what happened was at the beginning of the sixth season of the show. We had done one season already post ands departure from the show. And it was John wells sitting down with all writers. We had a little writer's retreat before beginning season, he made the I think the very wise decision that, you know, having survived making barely survived one season without are sort of visionary creator that it was time to mix up show. Why not mix it up wanted introduce some new energy into the show. Also, the writers were not simply trying to write a lesser version of the show that Aaron Sorkin had written, quite frankly. And it was John's idea introduced to the group that we run the next campaign to succeed the Martin sheen character on the show, and we had a lot of discussion and debate about what that should look like, and who would Democrats should be who will Republican should be. And maybe this was very California century. Decision. But we came to the conclusion, and John really sort of let us to that conclusion that the thing that seemed most likely as something coming over the horizon in American politics that maybe we could be a little bit ahead of was a Latino democratic nominee for president of the United States. You know, the character was created and introduced in a few scenes here and there in in a couple of episodes, and you've already talked about some of those. But then John because I think all my campaign experience John had asked me to write to together, which would be shot together actually on location in Toronto, which came in research, and for Dona that would really be the first two episodes all about this character, Matt Santos. So we had him in a few scenes already given his little speech written by Brad Whitford about hope and change which totally coincidentally seem to parrot all David's good work. I can't believe you stolen in advance. We sold in advance. We stepped in our time portal. But but I was sort of given the task. You can create the character. But I was given the task of sitting down and writing two hours worth of material about who he was and what he stood for. And the first thing that I started to do was to research prominent Latino politicians, there's a number in California and try to find somebody who looked like they could really be a player on the national stage, and represent the kind of Bartlett ask optimism, and progressivism that we wanted for the show, and it was around that time that Brock Obama gave his unbelievable stirring keynote address at the two thousand four democratic convention. The hope of a skinny kid with a funny name who believes that America has a place for him to. Hey. Hey in the face of difficulty hope in the face of uncertainty. The audacity of hope in the end that is God's greatest gift to us. The bedrock of this nation. Hit known David a little bit in politics already actually, totally ironically, the one thing David, and I had worked together on in politics was never delivered victory speech for free for air who was some running for mayor of New York in two thousand one and you know, it would have been the first Latino mayor of New York, but basically I'd seen David's name and some articles. I knew he was Brock Obama's guy. And I just called him, and we had a couple of long conversations where I picked his brains about Barack Obama seemed to me to be more of what we were looking for in the Matt Santos character than anyone else. I had seen in race or background. And the grade I'm the of it for me. I never thought Brock Obama would be president United States at that point. He was a state legislator, very appealing very. Charismatic of kind of a rockstar. But it's amazing to look back at that moment, you know, from this vantage point, how to Bama been on your radar prior to the keynote address for Kerry only an article that I read maybe in the New York Times just about this guy in Chicago. I mean bear I think he he kind of exploded into everybody's consciousness. I mean, obviously he'd been out there to be picked to give this keynote address. But I think curious David's perspective on how rap is that sort of cultural assent was it must have been weeks. Yeah. I was hoping could we go back now a little bit in the time line with you David about how did you first start working with Brock Obama? I knew Barack Obama from the time. He was a returning law student from Harvard and a woman, I know here in activist named biddy Lou Saltzman, call me and said, I just met the most remarkable young, man. And I think you need to meet him as well. And I said who is this guy? She said Barack Obama's Brock. And that's interesting name says. He's he's running a voter registration drive. Here's a weird thing. She said, I think he could be the first black president of the United States is who's the nineteen ninety two while. Yeah. So I was joke that no one I go to the track. I'd take bit with. And I met him. And he was he was exceptional. And there was no question about it. First of all he had been president of the Harvard law review that was national news, and he could've punched his ticket at any corporation or big love firm in America. And instead he came back to Chicago to run a voter registration drive, and he took a job in a small civil rights firm. And he was very clearly said, you know, I I want to be part of something larger than myself. I think I may want to go into politics some day, and we just struck up a friendship, but I didn't really work for him until that two thousand four campaign. What were you working on at the time? When you did I meet him. You know, I was an ex journalist, and I'd opened a political consulting firm in the mid eighties. And I was just working. I probably was doing twelve races the year that I met him. I mean, I had a lot of exposure to a lot of politicians, and the thing that I learned from all of that was that the world of politics divides into two very distinct. Cohorts. The first are people who run for public office because they wanna be something and that's a pretty numerous category. And then there are the people who run for public office because they want to do something, you know, the kind of Sorkin ask characters who you hope you're public officials will be and Obama was clearly in that category. As say one thing about dated that I don't know if it's as widely known, David correct me if I'm wrong, but before that two thousand four campaign, my understanding is that David really had a senior expertise in electing after American candidates helping to advise and strategize for African American candidate. Who would be the first African Americans elected in those states or districts that is true. And I was particularly active in mayoral races around the country, the Herro Washington here in Chicago and others. And in many of those cases, those candidates broke barriers. And so I got some useful experience in how to present. Want these candidates in these kind of barrier breaking races? So that that was helpful to me. It also was a passion of mine at something that I believed in but more than anything else. And I think that ally captured this so well in the Santos character. You know, Obama was someone who he deeply believed in politics, not as a sport, not as a an exercise in self aggrandizement. But as a vehicle to do things to make a difference. And he was deeply skeptical about the state of politics as we've found it, the some of the lines in that Fredonia episode were very reminiscent to me of some of the conversations that we had because the artifice of politics. Drove Obama crazy. He deeply disliked it. He was resistant to it preparing for debates. He would chafe at the performance elements of. Of debates in this the kind of scripted aspects of it rather than free flowing exchanges. We've got one more debate before this New Hampshire primary we really want. Another joint photo op another ninety second soundbite followed by sixty second sound bite another beauty pageant without the beauty ally. We had a long conversation. I was driving from my apartment in Chicago to a house. I have in Michigan and Eli kept me company on the entire trip on the phone, and we had a long conversation. At can't remember the conversation, particularly, but I certainly saw elements of Barack Obama in the character. Did you know who ally was when you got the call? Yeah. And I took it anyway. That was good answer. That was one of the few mistakes he's made in a long accessible career. And I met actually at the nineteen Ninety-six democratic convention when I was working in the Clinton White House as a sort of a very junior communications aide. David May not even completely remember this. But I was assigned to kind of babysit certain primetime speakers while they rehearsed with a lovely man who I'm still had just had dinner with few weeks ago. Michael Sheehan, who is kind of democratic speech coach and David came in with a client of his friend of his Dennis Archer. I do remember the who was either the mayor of Detroit or running for mayor of Detroit. He was mayor of Detroit. And I was just the kind of snot nosed message cop from the Clinton White House who was standing in there to make sure that David and mayor Archer speech used all of our coal tested pablum every five sentences at my job was there to keep an eye on the snot nose little twits from the. Campaign trying to keep us from saying meaningful things this right? But so then I wouldn't have said we were particularly good friends at that point. But I pass them in the hallway at the White House when he would be visiting from Chicago and maybe going to see Rahm Emanuel. And then it really wasn't until that speech for free for air in two thousand one it was actually a Guinan Harold ickies who worked in the Clinton White House who called me and said, you know, I'm working for Freddie for air. Would you write a victory speech for him in this primary? He was running against the guy knew Mark green. And I said to Harold I actually am not supporting pretty rare just because I have close friends working for Mark green. And Harold said. But if he gives the victory speech, your guy will Verdy lost. So that was an argument, I couldn't refuse and so then David called me we worked on the speech together. So I felt that Dave mea I had number in any case getting enough to call, and I knew Eli is reputation of from the White House and from the gore campaign, so he knew was serious guy. And we. Shared sensibilities, and so on so it was fun to hear from them allies reputation for writing undelivered victory speech. Yeah. That's a whole there's a whole volume of those. Yeah, it's true. I rish. Josh will remember from my wedding reception. I sort of opened mine toast that evening by saying. I was unfortunately, something politics who had built an expertise in concession speeches. And this was the first victory speech. I really involved with. Forgotten about pretty, but I remember that if you want me to characterize it. I remember a lot about the conversation. I think it was a couple of conversations that David, and I had where I was sort of picking his brains about this Barack Obama guy who at the time seemed like just guys. Yeah. What did you want to find out? Well, a couple of things. And maybe I maybe I went in also with an open mind and just wanted to try to see who was somebody who could be we'd already cast Jimmy Smits. We'd already shot a handful of scenes with him. We knew we were trying to tell the story about somebody who at the very least wanted to be post racial, if they weren't post racial in American politics. There is not a black America and a white America and Latino America and Asian America. There's the United States of America. And also somebody who as the was was referring to wanted to bend the rules of the game to themselves and not just play the rules of the game. Somebody who wanted to. To change politics and a couple of things that really resonated than. I never forgot. And I think part of the reason some of those lines seem familiar, I think he probably told them to me on those calls, and I type them stolen. I remember saying to myself when I was read watching the episode last night, those are brilliant lines. So. Well, one of the things was and this is something that I think it's closed forbade. What David said is remember him saying Barack Obama is of the black community, but not limited by it? And that was a very important thing that the Santos. Character was somebody who was not running away from his race was proud of his race head roots in that community, but wasn't going to define himself that way, I don't want to just be the Brown candidate. I want to be the American candidate even at a risk of hurting himself in the early going because that's where he might find a base. It'd be very easy to put yourself in that little cubbyhole and start from there sort of fused to do that. You almost song somebody who was weirdly almost born into politics as a presidential figure somebody who was speaking and thinking in those big thematic terms that most politicians don't even start to touch until they are at the top. And he he almost you know will. Himself to be that person. You know, part of the Fredonia we referred to as about, you know, the presidential Boyce. This is a guy who just had it kind of organically. I mean, that's how I always obscene Brock Obama people just slowly started to realize that he was probably presidential from the time. He was twenty three. I soon some of that speaks to his talents as a writer to Obama's talent as a writer. Yes. Yeah. Even when I met him when he was in his very early thirties. He had uncommon perspective on the world on politics. He had the sensibilities of a writer in that. He was both of the scenes that he was in. He was able to step back and sort of in his own mind. Observed them and understand, you know, the irony of things sometimes the absurdity of things I mean, I actually saw those qualities in the character that he li- wrote. There are other things that Santos shares with President Obama their age. And also the fact that. They had two young kids ally. Was that something that you were consciously looking at in terms of I guess you'd already cast Jimmy Smits? Like you said. Yeah, it's funny because I don't even know how much David knows about this. But as the series went on articles written after the showing off the air, I think around two thousand eight about all these other parallels, and I would save it. They were all completely coincidental. The fact that you know, he he had two young kids. The fact that he was around that age the fact that he was sort of remarked on some article that I saw that they both admired Bob Dylan, which came up later west wing episode. The fact that the Phillies were in the World Series in our fictional year. And then actually were the year. Obama ran some of that is just you know, people kind of reading into things may accept me. The Dylan thing is just a generational thing. If you were, you know of a certain age of any race, you know, that's kind of what was going on, you know. So I think maybe more was read into it overturn. But there's no. No question that the grain of who he wasn't what he was trying to do at least in these early. Episodes comes completely out of this experience of Barack Obama who in a way that we wanted the Matt Santos character to do also came out of nowhere in vaulted. You know, maybe not overnight to the top of the pack. That's pretty unusual thing to do David. Were you surprised by the arc that your candidate had for so many people were like, oh, he came out of the blue? But you're actually they're working the phones and putting your feet to the pavement. Did it feel like a surprise? I always thought of Matt Santos could do it than Barack Obama could. No, listen. I I always knew that he was exceptional. And I always knew that he had extraordinarily potential. I remember sitting in a bar in Milwaukee in the Pfister hotel and two thousand and four and talking to Dan Balz I in that cycle. I was working for John Edwards in the presidential race. It was an interesting experience working for the two of them at the same time. Because Edwards was a guy. He's very talented. But he was a guy who kind of wanted the top line. You know, we wanted the cliff notes, and he could take it from there. Obama was a guy who always wanted to drill down three or four levels into these issues and really think about him. And I said to Balts you ought to keep an eye on this guy, Barack Obama Morgan with in Illinois said Barack Obama I never heard of him. And I said you're going to because he really is an exceptional talent. But I never anticipated that it would happen. So quickly. When we won in two thousand and four I mean, I knew the night he gave the convention speech. And I actually knew that from the moment I saw conventions beach, which he largely wrote himself that he was going to be a big thing starting that the ninety gave it I had been in the hall in nineteen eighty four when Mariel Cuomo gave the keynote speech at the democratic convention in San Francisco, and I saw what happened with Cuomo. I mean, the minute he finished speaking he was projected into the national picture, and and was for several cycles after that I stood on the floor in Boston and hurt Obama, make his convention speech. And I watched the reaction around us standing with Robert Gibbs our press secretary, and I said to him this guy's life just changed and maybe ours too. And the next day we're walking around the streets of buzzy. He's literally being mobbed by people and that was the beginning. But we always thought. After he won. We want to keep our heads down. We didn't want the people of Illinois to think that he was using the state is simply a waste station. And he went on meet the press in January of two thousand and five and said completely sincerely that he wasn't going to be on the ticket one way or the other in two thousand and eight that he just wanted to be the best Senator could be from Illinois. But even it's really we may have road a little, but the tide of events really swept him along. And by the fall of two thousand and six it was clear that there was an opportunity, and as soon as that midterm election was over we convened, very serious discussions. But even when he launched his presidential campaign in two thousand seven, you know, it was viewed as a relatively long shot. We had this kind of crazy sense that it could happen. And that he was the right person at the right moment. But yes, I was surprised. I mean who would not be surprised about a guy who went from the ill. Illinois state Senate to the White House in four years that only happens on television. There's another thing that I always think about it. It's a story that made me well known but data I heard it for the first time when President Obama went on your podcast, which is that the two thousand democratic convention Bronco bomb who just lost the congressional race flew himself to Los Angeles. This is the convention that David was there, and I was working there as young speechwriter Bronco bomber flew himself there. I think his credit card was rejected when he tried to rent a car. Get tickets to go into the hall, and he flew back in disgrace to Chicago and eight years later, he's president United States. He lost a race for congress by thirty points. Primary race, and he was completely tapped out financially. Yeah. His credit card was turned down because he had maxed them all out in service of this losing race by the time. He and I hooked up in two thousand and two he was going through a very existential. Moment, you know, about whether he was going to go forward and politics, and he said, you know, Michelle, and I've talked about it. And I told her I just needed to take one more shot didn't work out. I go out and get a real job. I said I want to run for the United States Senate, but he was because he had lost so badly in because in two thousand and one Osama bin Laden had attacked the World Trade Center. There was this conventional thinking that his name was prohibitive in this environment that Obama couldn't raise the money. There are a lot of skeptics about whether he would even be competitive in that race. And so, you know, it was an astonishing journey from that low moment to winning the White House and just a short period of time. Let me ask you both. What might be a naive question. But at one point in the west wing, it's cleared that Josh Lyman is in at twin it, and he thinks that Matt Santos could be president. But Santos doesn't share that same feeling. We'll look up two months with this. I wanna waste chicken hands. Two months. I gave up everything for this. You're not even in it to win. Maybe we have a different definition of winning Josh. And so he's trying to make big policies speeches just to try and move them needle while he still can before he has to drop out of the race. And after watching that scene watching some of the twenty twenty candidates roll out their campaigns. I was wondering if there are candidates who announce and run without a sense that they might win really where the actual goal is just to set something up for the future future presidential run or something else. And this is just a there's just no better marketing plan for them than to be on the presidential campaign trail. Well, I think Donald Trump started off that way. I don't think he expected to be elected president. I think he thought it'd be a good branding exercise. He just spectacularly overshot the runway. But I think for most candidates, you know, they may recognize it's a long shot. I mean, the one who comes to mind, here's Pete Buddha. Judge running right now who's probably the closest to the Obama. Santos model. The guy who nobody takes particularly seriously at first who makes a lot of progress. And you know, you could say, well, he must be setting himself up for the future. But I have to tell you that in order run for president is a really really hard thing to do physically emotionally and at some level. You have to believe that there's a chance to do it or at least to do it seriously or else, it's almost impossible to motivate yourself. It's it is a physically and emotionally brutalizing process. So you know, I think you could be realistic about your chances. But you know, hope also springs eternal, and you need some of that to keep going. Yeah, I'm sort of embarrassed to admit that the moment reshi you're referring to which is in. I think the exit opposition research was probably designed more in retrospect as a plot twist, which is this moment of Josh Lyman point, his heart and soul into this guy and realizing they're not. On the same page at all they really didn't, you know, talk that through his deeply as they might have. But did so much more experienced than me in this? But I agree with him to it takes a sort of delusion even for somebody with no shot in extrordinary type, a people who could be the CEO's of any companies, and they're basically, you know, supplicant to everybody they need and living and cheap Jones. Yeah. Now, we'll say this. The one thing that does ring true is as ambitious as the candidates can be sometimes the jockeys can be even more eager than the horses. David. Did you watch the west wing rea- fan of the show? Well, first of all, I'm on the west wing podcast. So you won't offend us. Either way I'd be a fool to say anything other than. Yes. But of course, I did. I mean, you know, in a sense that it really spoke to me because I wrote a my my memoirs called believer. And it's not about one candidate. It's about this whole system and the Capra esque nature of the series really spoke to me because I believe deeply and all of this. And I want to believe that at the core. There's something magical special extraordinary about our democracy and its ability to produce great leaders when we need them. And so, yeah, I watched the show. Religiously and what's interesting to me is that you know, I run this institute of politics at the university of Chicago. And when I got here one of the things the students wanted to. Do have west wing nights. I think he like came and spoke before one of them. Oh, that's great. Yes. I did. And actually, I don't know if this is every week, but they it's basically pizza and they showed west wing on Wednesday nights the night the show originally aired and I think they sometimes call it seventeen pizzas. Reference to the episode seventeen people. That's very funny has it ever been definitively established whether or not President Obama watched this series. You know, I never had this discussion with him. But my guess is he probably did before he actually lived in the west wing and experienced the drama with all its absurdity and wards and challenges, but you know, at the court, he's a believer too. So I'm sure that it's something that would speak to him. It's interesting to watch it. Now, I went back and watched the fr- Dona episode last night. And even though it didn't focus on Martin sheen in the White House. It reminded me just the theme music is in noble in, you know, an uplifting, and did, and you know, it's hard to associate that music with the sort of farce that's unfolding today. I mean, I guess farces maybe treating it too lightly. But certainly I mean one of the things about Donald Trump, and you know, my view is because I am a believer in Domon. Crecy that I accept the results of elections. And I believe that the president who wins has the right to lead and make policy. We have the right to disagree. That's not the issue. But these institutions that are lifted up in this series. These institutions of our democracy is imperfectly as they are are really central core important institutions, and they're being sundered every day by a president who's he really doesn't believe deeply in them. So just watching the episode last night made me nostalgic. It's interesting to see that I hear more positive comments about the west wing just randomly anecdotally in the Trump years in W Bush years, then he'll balmy years because you know, in the Obama years, you could kind of see it on CNN every life was close to this show. And is not that way. Now when I worked in the White House, you know, I very much felt the spirit of that show and. And I remember in fact, one day, there was a particular day early in the administration when we were supposed to meet on whether we were going to intervene to save the American auto industry and the thing got delayed because the president was in a long security briefing on some stirrings in North Korea. And then he went off to do a town hall meeting on the economy, and then there was a meetings meetings in the afternoon Afghantistan and one on Iraq. Then we reconvened, and we had this very emotional hour and a half meeting on whether he would intervene to save the auto industry, which he ultimately decided to do. And I went back to my office. And I was exhausted has slumped to my chair and the phone rang. And it was Rahm Emanuel the chief of staff he said get in here right away Fargo's underwater. And there was a flood there. And the town was it was a disaster. And I said to myself what is this an episode of the west wing. This is crazy. All these things happening in one day. My last question for you is this is their character on the show that you identify most with. Oh, my you know, there are several of them. I will say that Richard Schiff always tells people that he played you. But that doesn't mean you have to accept it. No. I know I do accept it because he was a little bit of my personality type. I mean, he was he was a low key, you know, a little tortured professorial. Yeah. I mean, all rumpled, you know, all that so accept that. I accept that designation. The testing is a funny thing because I will say I've known so many people obviously in politics and worked in politics myself, and one of the joys of working on the west wing was that even when I was out here in Los Angeles already. I was able to talk to them constantly and still be in that world on a junkie of that world a fan of that world. And there are very few people. You can. Count them on certainly two hands who in their real lives and careers have been bodied that kind of real idealism of of the prototypical, west wing character in David is one of them, even before the Obama election. I think not too fond here. But I think he's a distort figure because he's somebody who looked out song places that say didn't have African Americans, you know, getting a chance to represent them. And he broke down those barriers, and he never was one of those cynical game players who just kind of played the game the way everyone else it played it. And that's what we as fired to capture on this show. You had me at Toby didn't have to go that far. I really I have great reverence for this atom of the son of an immigrant who fled persecution and came to this country and was able to build a life and his son became the senior adviser to the president of the United States. I see great majesty in this country, and in in our democracy, and it's been an incredible honor to be part of it. So what you said he li- means a lot to me. Well, it means a lot to us that both of you would join us. Thank thank you so much for spending time with us. Thanks so much for your time. Great being with you. Great pleasure. Thanks so much for tuning in. If you want to stay connected with our guests. You can follow them on Twitter at David Axelrod or at ally. Addy you can let us know how you felt about this episode by leaving a comment for us on our Facebook page. Facebook dot com slash the west wing weekly or on our website, the west wing weekly dot com or tweet at us at west wing weekly next week will be discussing drought conditions with special guests. Debra Kahn, and Richard Schiff. Thanks as ever to Margaret Miller, Zack macneice and Nick song. Thanks also to radio topa. We're proud to be a member of that fine collection of podcast. You can find out more information about the other shows at radio, topa dot FM. Okay. Okay. What's next? The four we go. We want to tell you what's going on with another radio Topi show. Our friends at the great podcast zigzag just kicked off a new season. Zigzags a podcast about changing. The course of capitalism journalism and women's lives. If you haven't listened yet, it's not too late to start. You can go back to season one and begin. Or if you've been waiting for a new season season for just dropped. 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