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A letter to ‘West Wing’s’ President Bartlet

Columnist thanks president played by Martin Sheen for his service
/ Source: The Associated Press

I don’t often dash off mash notes to the President of the United States, be he real or make-believe. Come to think of it, my last time was back in December 1999 (just a few months into the run of a fine new NBC drama, “The West Wing”), when I tipped my hat to President Jed Bartlet.

(MSNBC is a joint venture between NBC and Microsoft.)

With “The West Wing” concluding Sunday at 8 p.m. ET (following a repeat of its pilot episode at 7 p.m.), I feel like writing another open letter:

Dear President Bartlet,

I guess your mind is on many things after two eventful terms in the White House — and seven rousing seasons on TV.

Whew! It’s been a long haul, huh? Including that awful assassination attempt and the kidnapping of one of your daughters! Plus your battle with multiple sclerosis (glad to see how well you’re doing lately — using a cane sometimes, but otherwise in good shape).

Just this season you had a further blow: You lost your friend and right-hand man Leo McGarry (by then Matt Santos’ vice presidential running mate). His death was a sad aftershock to the unexpected passing of John Spencer, who had done no less than give Leo life.

Meanwhile, of course, you’ve been pretty busy as leader of the free world.

But now you’re handing the reins over to president-elect Santos (who looks so much like Jimmy Smits it’s amazing, just as you bear a remarkable resemblance to Martin Sheen). And I’m sure you can see how the public is preoccupied not with the past, but with the future (especially the new fall TV shows, which will be announced next week). So maybe viewers are giving short shrift to all that your show, er, administration, has vigorously stood for.

Please, Mr. President, don’t get me wrong. I have a tight enough grip on reality to understand that you are not, and never have been, the nation’s actual chief executive.

I can also make distinctions between one TV drama about the presidency and another. The recent ABC flop “Commander in Chief,” which installed Geena Davis in an ersatz Oval Office, was clearly so divorced from reality that I can imagine it available to YOU as escapist fare, Mr. President (although I doubt you ever got around to checking it out).

By contrast, “The West Wing” as conceived by Aaron Sorkin and then stewarded by others after his departure a few seasons ago (TV series, too, have White House shake-ups) has played true — in its own ambitious way.

A weekly display of intellect, wit, conscience and high drama, it has explored possibilities for statesmanship that seem rare in the real corridors of power. It has been filled with wonderful actors playing politicians (rather than in real government, where public figures scramble to play their roles convincingly).

On “The West Wing” our nation has been on view as if through Alice’s looking glass, mirroring us in many respects. (Although I often worried that — unlike the Lewis Carroll tale — it was here, on our side of the mirror, where things are backward. I think you know what I mean.)

So I chose to believe, and still do. I think of Josh and Donna, C.J. and Charlie, and all the rest (including you, Mr. President) as occupying a dimension cozily parallel with mine.

Now you’re leaving office and the series is about to leave NBC’s lineup. You both have had a long, distinguished run.

In its early years, “The West Wing” was even a hit. Then it fell prey to creative drift (which happens in the best administrations). More recently the show has bounced back with much of its original energy and spunk, if not its Top-10 ranking.

This season’s tough race between Santos and Sen. Vinick (a dead ringer for Alan Alda!) has been entertaining, yet substantive in ways we scarcely dream of anymore for an actual campaign.

Then Santos drafted his former Republican opponent to be his Secretary of State.

If the Nielsen ratings hadn’t plunged so far, maybe “The West Wing” would remain on the air with the Santos Administration settling in, doing the people’s business, making its inevitable blunders and carrying on. But low Nielsens (season-to-date, “The West Wing” languishes in a tie for 79th) are the sort of approval rating that can kill, not just cripple, a presidency.

So “West Wing” fans will be left to imagine for themselves the triumphs and setbacks awaiting President Santos. His White House will be unseen in our world, relegated to a phantom realm beyond the reach of any viewer’s cable box. But there, I’m sure, a big-hearted, patriotic spirit will prevail.

Like yours, Mr. President, and for that, my thanks. Together with everyone who made your presidency possible, you are leaving our country (or, at least, television) a better place than you found it.