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'WEST WING,' A SMART, WISHFUL DRAMA

He has passion. He can deliver a great speech. He doesn't need much sleep. He loves sports. He's handsome. And he's a good politician.

If he weren't a great writer, "West Wing" creator Aaron Sorkin would have made a helluva presidential candidate.

The man who wrote Jack Nicholson's "You can't handle the truth" speech in "A Few Good Men," "The American President" and the ABC series "Sports Night" has created another show with the same snappy cadences, NBC's "The West Wing" (9 p.m. Wednesday, Channel 2).

We don't meet President Josiah Bartlet (Martin Sheen, a co-star in "The American President") until the final 15 minutes. By then he has introduced several Cabinet members played by an all-star cast of actors, most of whom are about as well-known to the general public as members of President Clinton's Cabinet.

Sheen, Rob Lowe and John Spencer ("L.A. Law") are the big names, with the faces of cast members Bradley Whitford, Richard Schiff and Allison Janney more familiar than their names.

By the time the president shows up after a President Ford-like, accident-marred vacation, his cabinet has grappled with a public relations crisis involving the religious right and a crisis on the high seas involving Cubans trying to escape to Florida.

The president solves everything quickly and smartly, and even takes the moral high road against the religious right. If only President Sheen were more like the men who have resided at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. since Watergate.

"There's a certain amount of wish fulfillment here," Sorkin conceded at a press-conference interview in Los Angeles. "That maybe we'll be excited to look at the White House the way we wish it was a little bit."

Sorkin clearly wanted to say more about politics after writing the two-hour "American President." And this TV series is a perfect venue for his tendency to write passionate speeches. He writes them often in "Sports Night," with one of the most memorable last season being a diatribe against Jerry Falwell and the religious right. He liked it so much, he practically repeats it in "West Wing."

When I asked him about the issues of having more to say about politics and the religious right, Sorkin's answers were as smooth as any politician's.

"I had a great time writing 'The American President' in 1994-95," said Sorkin. "I guess since I had done it, I had wanted to write more, somehow, and the stories that were coming to me seemed episodic. They seemed like chapters in a novel."

So when he met "ER" executive producer John Wells for a lunch arranged by his agent, Sorkin thought Wells expected him to come up with a series idea.

"On the spot, I said, 'What about the White House?' " said Sorkin.

"As far as the Jerry Falwell thing, listen, I'm honestly not out to offend anyone. I don't have fun doing that. I do have fun writing, and from time to time, part of that fun is tapping into a sort of hot-button thing. It tends to produce very fiery writing at that appropriate moment in a show. If I offend anyone on the Christian right, I do apologize. It's not my intention, but nor do I back off what I've written."

He admitted the presidential speech attacking the religious right involved a personal passion.

"I get up on a box and I let you all know about it," said Sorkin. "There's an organization called the Lambs of Christ and they do bad things. They do violent things and they harass people. The Lambs of God (in the pilot) is a thinly veiled fictionalized version of that. They're the people who, in the pilot, have sent the president's granddaughter a doll with a knife stuck through its throat. And we're certainly ready for letters."

But Sorkin adds this president's politics aren't easy to pigeonhole.

"This White House has a president who is extremely unpredictable politically," said Sorkin. "I'm looking forward to writing all sorts of arguments, unlikely arguments for things. But it's just important to bear in mind that it's not important that you agree with us politically in order to like the show. The show's about the people."

Though he realizes the pilot suggests this president leans left, Sorkin said that will change in Episodes 2 and 3.

"The president takes a position on a military action that is so hawkish, so right-leaning, that he actually frightens the joint chiefs of staff," said Sorkin, who claims he isn't that sophisticated on political issues.

"The speechifying on 'Sports Night,' the speechifying in the pilot of 'West Wing,' are there for the purposes of drama," said Sorkin. " 'The West Wing' isn't meant to be good for you. When people talk in things that I write they tend to be hypercommunicative, which is to say they can't shut up. It's going to be for the sake of drama and not for the sake of winning your vote somehow."

Take the Nicholson speech at the end of "A Few Good Men."

"He forwards a pretty reasonable argument for participating in the death of this Marine," said Sorkin. "Obviously I don't feel the same way as Nicholson's character did, but the strength of that moment was listening to an unusual argument being delivered unusually well."

Of course, Sorkin doesn't want to frighten away non-political viewers.

"I would like to get out of the way of actual events as much as I can," said Sorkin, who couldn't ignore one in July. The cast is politically incorrect. No African-Americans were in key positions in the original pilot (tonight's episode is a revised version), an oversight that Sorkin knows needs to be addressed.

Sorkin said viewers will later learn that the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff is an African-American, as is the president's personal aide and personal physician.

"There are going to be African-American men and women, Asian-American men and women, Latino men and women playing characters with power and with responsibility," he said.

Sorkin concedes he can't compete with some political realities. For instance, he isn't even going to attempt to match the Monica Lewinsky scandal that engulfed the Clinton presidency.

"Frankly, it's kind of ruined scandals for everybody now," he said.

The biggest question facing "The West Wing" is whether -- apparently like Sorkin's low-rated "Sports Night" -- it will be just too smart for the Nielsen room.

Because if a series this intelligent fails to get a second term, it will be scandalous.

Rating: 4 stars out of 5.

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