When Lowe does get out, he gets out big time. He's been a guest at the White House under both the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations and loves to talk about the differences. ''With Clinton, my kids basically got to carry the suitcase with the codes for the nuclear weapons and sit in the President's chair. With Bush, the staff didn't even lift the velvet rope on the Oval Office.'' Lowe's watching Bush carefully. ''I was very pleased to see him put through a patient's bill of rights even though it wasn't the toothiest version, but I would have been really angry if he didn't grant government funding in some capacity for stem cell research.'' And the GOP's eyeing Lowe too. In addition to that mash note W. sent him (''Just a courtesy thing,'' Lowe insists), ''The West Wing'' -- despite being dubbed ''The Left Wing'' among Lowe's ''friends in the Republican Party'' -- is still immensely popular with the staffers at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. ''It's not like we sit around saying 'We've got to respond to Bush on this or that issue,''' says Lowe. ''At this point, the characters are established enough to have lives of their own. President Bartlet is a force to reckon with.''
Actually, Lowe's been reckoning with Bartlet, or at least Sheen, for as long as he can remember. Growing up in Malibu in a house across from the Sheens', Lowe lived in fear of Charlie and Emilio's dad. ''He denies it,'' Lowe says, ''but I can assure you that on Halloween, the last person you wanted to run into if you were egging or shaving-creaming was Martin Sheen. I can recall him patrolling the neighborhood in full fatigues with a baseball bat. I think he might have been working out some post–''Apocalypse Now'' psychodrama.'' (Not only would Sheen neither confirm nor deny the allegation, he chose not to comment for this piece at all.)
This season, Lowe's Seaborn has his own psychodramas. He'll have a potential love interest in new campaign strategist Connie (''Spin City'''s Connie Britton). And in one scene involving a Latino lobbyist, Seaborn shows off his conversational Spanish, something Lowe had to learn -- pronto. ''As you might guess, Sam doesn't just speak regular Spanish,'' Lowe says. ''It's speed-bag, 100-mile-an-hour, rat-tat-tat-tat-tat.'' Adds Sorkin, ''I tend to torture Rob a little.'' Not that Sorkin needs to nag. ''Rob's tougher on himself than any other actor I've seen,'' says Anna Deavere Smith, the stage actress and recurring ''West Winger.'' Lowe's taken just 18 vacation days in three years and fills his hiatuses with film work. Next up: 2002's ''A View From the Top,'' in which he plays a pilot who joins the mile-high club with flight attendant Gwyneth Paltrow.
As if Lowe needed any more highs, Tom Cruise, who costarred with Lowe in his first movie, Francis Ford Coppola's ''The Outsiders,'' called his pal for a tour of the ''West Wing'' set and afterwards invited Lowe to watch him shooting Steven Spielberg's upcoming ''Minority Report.'' ''Tom made me climb up five levels of scaffolding,'' Lowe says, ''and when we got to the top, high over everything, he hitched himself onto a bungee cord and dove off into the set. I was absolutely terrified! Tom just threw his head back and laughed and yelled up, 'Admit it, there was a part of you that was hoping I was gonna get hurt!' Then Spielberg calls up to me on his megaphone: 'Love your work on ''West Wing.''' And I'm just thinking, Man! My life is surreal!''
Even for Rob Lowe, being Rob Lowe can be a bit awe-inspiring.