'Jack and Bobby' imagines life before 'West Wing'

LOS ANGELES — In Washington, the pundits are already speculating about who might run for the White House in 2008. In Hollywood, where Nielsen ratings matter more than Mason-Dixon polls and the typical fad has a shelf life of two commercial breaks, they’re taking a somewhat longer view.

At least, that was the buzz at the party launching “Jack & Bobby,” the new WB drama, last month at Cinespace. As the cast and crew filed into the club for champagne, crab cakes and a viewing of the pilot, organizers doled out red, white and blue buttons emblazoned with “Vote McCallister in 2040.”

photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.
Logan Lerman as Bobby, the future president, right, with Matt Long as his big brother, Jack

That would be Bobby McCallister, younger brother to Jack and a future president of the United States. Of course, neither 13-year-old Bobby, 16-year-old Jack nor their mother, Grace, has any idea that Bobby — awkward, shy, always hovering somewhere between annoying and endearing — will one day wind up leader of the free world.

And therein lies the lovely dramatic irony of this latest foray into “smart TV,” a tale of two interwoven threads — one the childhood of a great politician growing up in a small town in Missouri, the other the story of that politician’s presidential campaign and administration.

If “The West Wing” is about life inside the White House, “Jack & Bobby” is about the life that leads there.

While the show revolves around Bobby as teenager, the viewing audience is spoon-fed bits and pieces of the story of President McCallister’s ascendancy by way of post-administration “interviews” in 2049, after McCallister has presumably left office, with political rivals, administration officials and the future (former) first lady.

One of the greatest challenges writers faced, explained Vanessa Taylor, co-executive producer and co-creator of “Jack & Bobby,” was anticipating what the United States might be like in a half-century. This has entailed peppering the script’s 2049, “60-Minutes”-style segments with references to past events that have yet to take place — for example, the War of the Americas, which, as far as any historian can tell, has never happened but which apparently took the life of President Lorio’s son. (President Lorio would be the president who immediately precedes President McCallister.)

Whatever the case, Logan Lerman, the 12-year-old who plays Bobby and has had roles in “Riding in Cars with Boys,” “The Butterfly Effect” and “What Women Want,” among other productions, promises that the show gets better by the episode.

That’s good news for the producers, who had two bad weeks of ratings before the WB decided to extend the lifespan of “Jack & Bobby” from 13 to 22 episodes.

Ruminating on the nature of Bobby the boy/future president, Lerman said: “I’m nothing like my character,” alluding to Bobby’s lack of friends and fascination with Space Club. “Everybody sees me as a big nerd. I’m not a big nerd at all.”

The genesis of the show dates back to Hope, Ark., 1992, when Steve “Scoop” Cohen, on the campaign trail for then-Gov. Bill Clinton, began envisioning a television show that told the real story behind the story — where a president came from, who his family was, what little, seemingly irrelevant scrapes and detours transformed him into a world leader.

Cohen, with novelist Brad Meltzer and writers at the WB, molded his idea into its present incarnation, melding together an array of themes and story lines that pull from a slew of postwar administrations as well as the unsuccessful presidential bid of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), possibly the only Republican Hollywood has ever loved.
(McCallister, we learned in the second episode, ran in the GOP primaries for the White House and then bolted the party after conservatives ambushed him, eventually getting elected as an independent.)

A spokeswoman for McCain said the senator probably has not seen the show, which has only been on the air for four weeks. She added that McCain generally sticks to news and sports.

Taylor said that the title of the show is meant “to evoke the feeling of the Kennedy era and the hopefulness of civic life” but that it doesn’t have anything to do with Democratic politics per se.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the party at Cinespace had less of the feel of a classic Hollywood throw-down — with its exploding camera bulbs, breezy chit chat and oodles of would-be leading ladies arm in arm with sixtysomething directors — and more that of a hip cocktail party at the Brookings Institution.

Matt Long, the 24-year-old from Winchester, Ky., who plays Jack, explained that the show had made him pay greater attention to the real-life presidential campaign.

“I’m getting more into it,” Long said. “I’m watching the news more, getting more personally involved.”

Long, who said he voted in the last presidential election and said he would “absolutely” be heading to the polls in November, declined to disclose his feelings about President Bush or Sen. John Kerry. “I’m going to keep all the politics personal,” he said.