`West Wing': The White House we wish we had

Stand in the Oval Office. The carpet bears the seal of the president of the United States. The huge desk looks just like the one that John-John Kennedy played in as a boy, in that famous photo where he peeps out through the little door in the front. On the desk is the chief executive's collection of glass paperweights.

The walls are lined with portraits, and there are photos of the president with various world leaders. But . . . look a little closer. Doesn't the president's face look sort of, well, stuck onto his body? And doesn't President Bartlet bear a strange resemblance to actor Martin Sheen?

"We're hoping to switch those photos out as the series goes on," says production designer Ken Hardy, "as we have the opportunity to take more pictures of Martin Sheen in great presidential situations. Right now, it's `Forrest Bartlet.' "

"It's a little embarrassing," says Sheen. "He's much thinner than I am."

The spell is broken - as if the lighting crane planted in the middle of the Mural Room wasn't already a clue - and the White House dissolves back into the soundstages of Warner Bros. Studios in Southern California, home to the sets of the NBC-TV drama "The West Wing," which airs Wednesday nights at 9 p.m..

Recently the series won a George Foster Peabody Award, the top accolade in American broadcasting. In handing out the honor, the Peabody committee called the show a "magnificent episodic series that depicts the tension and backroom drama of presidential politics with an unusual mixture of maturity and humanity."

In the imagination of series creator and chief writer Aaron Sorkin (who is "thrilled" at winning the Peabody), the country is governed by one Josiah Bartlet (Martin Sheen), a New Hampshire liberal Democrat - and, according to a recent episode guest-starring Karl Malden as Bartlet's parish priest, a Roman Catholic, which may be as much Sheen's doing as Sorkin's - with a long agenda, a short temper, a vast education, multiple sclerosis and a fondness for glass paperweights.

The set covers roughly 30,000 square feet, with between 20 and 25 rooms, including offices for such senior staffers as Leo McGarry (John Spencer), Bartlet's chief of staff; deputy communications director Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe); deputy chief of staff Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford); and press secretary C.J. Gregg (Allison Janney).

Apparently the set in general is a bit spiffier than its real-life counterpart. "The real West Wing is very cramped," says Hardy. "It was originally built in 1902 and updated a couple of times, but it's a tenth the size it should be. Everybody wants to be close to the president, so even though right next to the real West Wing is the old Executive Office Building, which is a beautiful, vast building, nobody wants to be in it. They want to be close to the president."

Each week, Steadicams track cast members as they weave in and out of the various rooms, putting out fires in foreign hot spots, negotiating to get bills passed, struggling with press leaks and personal difficulties, trying to do the business of the nation during business hours and almost never succeeding.

"It's an incredible set, isn't it?" says Spencer. "It's a wonderful thing, because we've gotten very used to it. We're reenergized by people's reactions to it."