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‘West Wing’ must deal with Spencer’s loss

No one can fill actor’s shoes, but someone must fill spot on ticket. By Stuart Levine
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

According to the pundits, Dick Cheney has more power than any vice president in U.S. history. The same might have been said for Leo McGarry, the vice-presidential candidate John Spencer played on NBC's "The West Wing."

McGarry, who served as chief of staff before joining Matthew Santos (Jimmy Smits) on the show's Democratic ticket, won’t be able to find out if the Dems are able to retain the Oval Office. Spencer died suddenly Dec. 20 of a heart attack just as the show's Election Day was nearing. His death will be addressed on the April 2 episode of the show.

NBC has been coy in revealing how executive producers John Wells and Lawrence O’Donnell will blend fact into fiction. McGarry had suffered a heart attack last season, so it makes sense that’ll be the reason behind his death.

The New York Post reported that his funeral has already been filmed, with the Air Force Honor Guard participating, and that the episode will air April 16. It might be the most emotional night of fictional television of the year.

Ultimate insider, ultimate underdogMcGarry always seemed to work best when everyone was counting him out.

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After collapsing in the woods at Camp David and becoming too impaired to continue with his chief of staff duties, he returned to the White House wounded, but far from politically impaled. While everyone was treating him with a “It’s nice to have you back but please stay out of my way,” he devised a vision for the remaining year of the administration in "Wing's" uplifting “365 Days” episode.

Similarly, this season, while preparing for the critical VP debate he seemed old, discombobulated and completely inarticulate while stumbling on policy issues. All an ingenious ruse, it turned out. As soon as McGarry saw the camera’s red light, he slaughtered his Republican opponent with both homespun charm and a clear analysis of where the country should be headed.

Now the question is where should the Santos team be headed? Who’s in the best position to take over the vacated VP spot, and how much of a blow will McGarry’s sudden departure be to the ticket?

Even though the VP is only a heartbeat away from the presidency, surveys show that voters really don’t concern themselves with who’s in the second chair. So it’s possible McGarry’s death won’t be a big deal when voters pull the curtain entering the polling booth.

But if the election is as close as the writers are letting on — after being down most of the race, Santos has pulled ahead ever so slightly in a few of the key battleground states — whoever Santos chooses could swing the vote one way or another.

CJ for VP?So who are the logical choices? One interesting pick would be C.J. Cregg, played with gusto by four-time Emmy winner Allison Janney. She’s already been promoted once, from press secretary to chief of staff, but this leap seems a bit of a reach.

Not that she couldn’t handle the job. She's juggling more now on the domestic and international fronts than she ever would as VP. But choosing a woman might make some spineless and redneck voters uneasy and it’s unlikely the Dems want to give undecided voters a reason to go the other way.

Rob Lowe, who was originally cast as presidential confidante Sam Seaborn in its first season, is returning for the final two episodes. When Lowe left the series after the fourth season, his character was planning to run in a congressional race, which might give him enough political experience here to satisfy voters.

That leaves us with the most unorthodox choice, but one that, if the writers set up the framework correctly, could be one of the most exciting as well.

While solidly seated in the Republican base, Alan Alda’s California senator Arnold Vinick is much more politically centered than many in his party. He's been tough for the Democrats to campaign against because on several issues, he and Smits think the same.

What if Santos wins the election and word of Leo’s death doesn’t get out until after the results? If the election is decided by a razor-thin margin, how about asking Vinick to join as VP to unify the country? Unorthodox? Absolutely. Possible? Sure, why not?

Sure, some personal fences would need immediate mending, but it would give a chance to tell America that the candidates are more important than their party affiliations. If government is really for the people, and we want our best citizens to strive for the highest office, perhaps the two-party system doesn’t necessarily need to be adversarial, if candidates can unite on the important issues. Sure, it’s probably pure folly but what better venue than network television will Wells and company have to make their case?

“West Wing,” which will end its proud seven-year run in May, has always shined when reaching for political nirvana. Sam’s affairs with prostitutes, Donna’s longing for Josh’s approval, and marital affairs of future son-in-laws have always been nothing more than attempts to woo viewers who thought the show's politics were too highbrow.

But being highbrow at the cost of ratings and making sure government is available to everyone — no matter the cost — is the legacy of “West Wing.”

Leo McGarry would wholeheartedly agree.

Stuart Levine is a senior editor at Daily Variety in Los Angeles.