Funny, but I don’t remember the country shedding a collective tear when Andy Card resigned as chief of staff a couple of months ago. And there wasn’t a rush on Kleenex when Scott McClellan stepped down as press secretary, replaced by Fox News’ Tony Snow.
So why do I feel this sudden rush of sadness as NBC's "West Wing" prepares to depart on May 14? Over the past few seasons, characters from “West Wing” have been promoted and even left the White House due to scandal, personal advancement, or to work on the just-concluded presidential election. Our memories of them, however, will always be of their duties at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. — a.k.a. soundstages 23 and 28 on the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank, Calif.
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Viewers will miss CJ Cregg (Allison Janney) standing on the podium in the press room, spinning stories in front of a packful of hungry-for-news journos trying to break a story. Real U.S. administrations and the press have, at least for the last few decades, had an adversarial relationship, and CJ would play her part in that awkward and untrusting dance played out every day at the press briefings. She’d never outright lie, but instead would do her best to put the president in the best light possible, even if that light was a flickering candle in a sea of darkness.
Then there were those snippy rat-a-tat conversations (some would call them arguments) between Josh Lyman and Toby Ziegler. Free trade, voting amendments, education reform — didn’t make a difference. Lyman (Bradley Whitford) would be passionate one minute, hangdog exhausted the next.
Ziegler (Richard Schiff) may have had more political savvy than anyone in the entire administration, but his contentious and abrasive style was sometimes too much to stomach — for both the character he was berating and viewers watching at home. His self-righteousness became overbearing at times and when he eventually was fired from his job because of a security leak, not too many felt bad about it. For all of Ziegler’s smarts, he never understood the importance of subtlety. Sure, he was usually right about whatever the subject was but he was also indignant too, and that attitude will ultimately cost you — and it did, both professionally and personally.
Chief of staff Leo McGarry (the late John Spencer) offered calming waters in tumultuous times, knowing when to placate a colleague or legislator if it was politically prudent and when to demand his counsel be followed to the letter. McGarry was the great ruse, a political illusionist. Like a modern-day Houdini, he’d distract all the naysayers by having them keep an eye on his right hand while getting all his work done with the left. Even those close to him would sometimes question his motives, but McGarry always had a plan. He just wouldn’t always share it with everyone.
And then there’s the prez. Martin Sheen filled the role of President Bartlet with both gravitas and compassion, as drawn out by show creator Aaron Sorkin. Bartlet made the hard decisions when necessary, but always left room for negotiation, no matter how badly he wanted to crush those who stood against him.
Show has stumbled, but exits on a high noteYes, the show was far from perfect. Sorkin and executive producer John Wells, who went on to run the show after Sorkin’s departure, had to juggle between teaching civics lessons and serving up soap opera dramatics.
For every scene where questions were raised about how much should a nation pay, in the cost of human lives, for protecting our foreign interests and national security, equal questions were raised about when Donna would sleep with Josh. Or where the president’s daughter, Zoe, was being held after kidnapped. Don’t even get me started about the scene when Josh, after a particularly hard day at the office, drives up to the Capitol and yells, “You want a piece of me?”
Some might say that NBC sent “West Wing” a death blow by moving it from its familiar Wednesday-night slot to Sundays a couple of years back. Though that might not have been a great move in retrospect, it probably didn’t make much a difference. Ratings had been slowly sliding for a couple of seasons before that and was starting up on ABC, which was sure to grab viewers away. was also becoming a Wednesday staple.
“West Wing” will close out its campaign with a new president: Jimmy Smits’ Matthew Santos will be sworn in on the series finale. This season has been as good as any — not a small accomplishment for a series that’s overcome the tragic death of longtime cast member Spencer and the exodus of creator Sorkin and his right-hand man, Thomas Schlamme. So even though fans will be saddened, the show finishes on a high note.
Not many programs get to go out like that, with the quality as high as it was from Day 1. “West Wing” taught us that, despite the mudslinging that can create a stench in Washington, politics can remain a noble profession. The selfless men and women who serve do so not out of ego, but out of wanting to make government both a beacon and a safety net for the benefit of others.
And if Josh has to sleep with Donna to get that done, so be it.
Stuart Levine is a senior editor at Daily Variety in Los Angeles.