Richard Schiff is well remembered for the role he memorialized on “The West Wing,” White House communications director Toby Ziegler, whose integrity and passion for justice helped television’s President Bartlet make decisions for the greater good.
Fiction sort of mingled with reality last week, as Schiff came to Pittsburgh to campaign for Hillary Clinton, meeting with about two dozen local Jewish community members at Pamela’s Diner in Squirrel Hill, then on to Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh to meet with students. The Pittsburgh stop was part of a larger tour that included Ohio and West Virginia.
Schiff, who backed Joe Biden, then Barack Obama in 2008 and began this election cycle as a Bernie Sanders supporter, was not always inclined toward politics. In fact, it was “The West Wing,” and the people he met as a result of working on that show, that motivated him to get involved.
“‘The West Wing’ had a lot to do with me getting into politics,” the Jewish actor said in an interview following his meeting at Pamela’s. “When I was younger, I was much more of a Bernie Sanders type — even more so. I was on the street demonstrating against the war.”
At that time in his life, Schiff had very little faith in government, he explained.
“I grew up in the Vietnam era, then in the Watergate era, and I didn’t trust government,” he said. “And so, it was actually through ‘The West Wing,’ where I started to meet people — like presidents — but mostly, actually, the staffers, who were so dedicated and so brilliant. And I began to realize that if you work inside, if you work in the mainstream of politics, those changes that people tend to demand from time to time, like the civil rights movement, like the anti-war movement, can happen.”
Those changes, he said, tend to be incremental but are accomplished ultimately through the workings of mainstream politics.
“Take my lifetime, for example,” he said. “Rosa Parks sat on the bus one year before I was born. The women’s liberation movement was nonexistent when I was born. Talk about gay and lesbian rights — that movement didn’t exist when I was a kid, much less transgender rights and all that. All of these things take time. The great leaders follow the movements and the demands of people.”
Though it is in the hands of the country’s leaders to legislate social change, it is nonetheless important for citizens to continue to “get out on the street” to rally for that change, Schiff said.
Schiff is committed to doing whatever he can to help Clinton’s campaign, even though talking to “groups of angry people trying to get them to change their minds” is not his favorite thing to do. “What I can help to do is rally people who want to work for Hillary to work harder and to talk to those people who are on the fence for whatever reasons and hopefully bring about a victory for Hillary Clinton, because I think the stakes are as high as any time in my lifetime.”
Schiff referenced the election of 2000, when “people weren’t excited about Al Gore because he was a bit of an academe and a bit of a stiff,” and because “people didn’t want the same old, same old, because he was in the Clinton White House for eight years.” There was a lot of “apathy” in that election, he said.
“Someone else was able to wrestle the White House away from what I thought was the rightful winner,” he said, adding, that it is imperative for people who care to get involved.
“Otherwise, it’s just too dangerous for me to imagine what could happen,” he said. “In 2000, people weren’t as activated. And look what happened. The worst decision in my lifetime, which was to invade Iraq and split the atom in the Middle East, and open up this — to say it’s a Pandora’s box is to minimize it — this nightmare.”
If Gore had been allowed to “accept his victory,” Schiff continued, “there is no doubt in my mind that that would have happened differently and that we would not have invaded Iraq for trumped-up reasons — excuse the pun — and that we would have moved toward alternative energy a lot quicker and that we would be leading the world right now.”
The actor explained why he began this campaign season supporting Sanders and is now full throttle for Clinton.
“To me, the debate was over 14 months ago when I personally realized that Trump was going to be the nominee,” he said. “So the only debate was Bernie or Hillary. There was no debate who I was going to vote for of those two when November rolls around, because the other alternative is not acceptable. And it’s obvious to me and clear to me, and I’m trying to understand why it isn’t to everyone.”
Judging by Republican Donald Trump’s recent ascendance in national polls — aided by his own army of supporters just as enthused as Schiff — the Hollywood actor has a lot of work left to do.
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.