Was the West Wing’s Matt Santos Based on Barack Obama?

Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about TV and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of the TV urban legends featured so far.

TV URBAN LEGEND: Congressman Matt Santos was based on Barack Obama.

Jimmy Smits’ Matt Santos’ campaign and ultimate election was the main plot of the last two seasons of the West Wing (and originally, was hopefully going to lead the show into a new Presidential term with a more or less brand new cast)…

In an amazing piece of seemingly life imitating art, the campaign of the charismatic young-ish minority Congressman (Smits) against the veteran Republican whose middle of the road ways endeared him to many Democrats (Alan Alda) seemed to repeat itself when Barack Obama took on (and defeated) John McCain.

Interestingly enough, though, the West Wing producers had contacted Obama’s people years earlier, when Obama was not even yet a Senator.

Jonathan Freedland had a great article about the connection in The Guardian back in early 2008…

For what those West Wing fans stunned by the similarity between the fictitious Matthew Santos and the real-life Barack Obama have not known is that the resemblance is no coincidence. When the West Wing scriptwriters first devised their fictitious presidential candidate in the late summer of 2004, they modelled him in part on a young Illinois politician – not yet even a US senator – by the name of Barack Obama.

“I drew inspiration from him in drawing this character,” West Wing writer and producer Eli Attie told the Guardian. “When I had to write, Obama was just appearing on the national scene. He had done a great speech at the convention [which nominated John Kerry] and people were beginning to talk about him.”

Attie, who served as chief speechwriter to Al Gore during the ill-fated 2000 campaign and who wrote many of the key Santos episodes of the West Wing, put in a call to Obama aide David Axelrod.

“I said, ‘Tell me about this guy Barack Obama.’”

Now here’s where it gets tricky.

As they also note in the article, Jimmy Smits had already been cast at this point as Matt Santos.

Had they seen Obama’s impressive speech at the Convention and said, “Hey, let’s come up with a character like this guy!” then sure, I’d say Matt Santos was definitely based on Barack Obama.

But they HAD the Santos character already.

So what happened sounds more like they used Obama’s real life qualities as an aid in writing and developing Santos, but I don’t really know if I would go as far as to say that he was BASED on Obama.

It’s mostly a semantic distinction, but one I think is important enough to give this a SLIGHT false. When I hear “They based Character X on Person Y,” I think of a chronology where Person Y influenced the very CREATION of Character X, not just informed part of his personality later on.

But, again, it’s a close call either way.

The legend is…

STATUS: I’m Going With Slightly False (but it is close)

Thanks to Jonathan Freedland for the great quotes!

Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is bcronin@legendsrevealed.com.

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