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TV Squad Ten: Events from The West Wing that wouldn't really happen

by Brad Trechak, posted Jul 16th 2009 2:04PM
The West Wing on DVDAs I mentioned before, I recently completed my summer project of watching the entire series of The West Wing from start to finish. After using a month or so to cogitate, I decided that while the show feign realism, it didn't quite achieve the mark.

Many of the events I refer to occurred after creator Aaron Sorkin was ousted from the series. I take that as more than coincidence.

Major spoilers for the show follow after the jump, so if you haven't seen it yet, turn back now.

Here are ten events that happened on the show that I believe simply wouldn't happen under an actual Presidential administration (or, in the case that they did, shouldn't have happened):

West Wing Toby Ziegler1. Toby betraying the President - the number one thing on my list. Even the actor who played the role, Richard Schiff, agrees with me. There is no way a die-hard liberal purist would betray the wishes of his President and administration by leaking to the press even if he disagreed with them. In doing so, he threatened the integrity of the administration in its dying days. Sorry, it doesn't jibe with me.

2. President Bartlett keeping his multiple-sclerosis secret for so long
- In this day and age? Are you kidding? He would have been outed by the time he was on the campaign trail, possibly by other Democrats. And then the sparks would have flown. All kind of Republican allegations and accusations.

3. Vice President Hoynes keeping secret a sex scandal - Granted, it was eventually found out and covered up, but given the sheer amount of media out there, you'd think someone would have blabbed. I didn't like that C.J. would sleep with Hoynes either. I thought she would have more class. But everyone has moments of weakness.

West Wing Donna and Josh4. Donna and Josh taking seven years to sleep with each other - They worked so closely together and had such a good rapport, I simply can't believe it took as long as it did (of course, I cheered when it happened, so that could have been the plan all along). Or perhaps Sorkin's original plan was to never have them hook up. In truth, it's a wonder that more of the campaign staff weren't sleeping around.

5. Leo becoming a Vice Presidential candidate
- While Leo comes from the perfect background to be a politician, I always pictured him as the man-behind-the-scenes that tries to play the political chess game as best he can. Usually the Vice President is more of an ambassadorial role (except for that whole President of the Senate thing). Leo himself looked pretty old and frail during the final season leading up to actor John Spencer's death. In such a circumstance, I think someone else would have been chosen to begin with.

West Wing C.J.6. C.J. Cregg becoming Chief of Staff - Is going from Press Secretary to Chief of Staff really a logical progression? It doesn't sound like one to me. Josh Lyman was the most likely candidate as Deputy Chief of Staff, plus he had the skills and contacts. It seemed more like a stunt to surprise the viewing audience.

7. Choosing your presidential opponent as your Secretary of State
- Nuh-uh. No way. Even if Matt Santos made the offer, there is no way Arnold Vinick would accept. Granted, in true life Obama selected Hillary Clinton and they had a huge rivalry, but it was still the same party. Not without switching parties, and the character wouldn't. In more general terms...

8. Hiring members of the opposing party to be on the staff
- There is such a thing as the spoils system after an election. Usually, it doesn't involve people from the losing side. They hired two Republicans virtually in succession for the White House Counsel office. Again, this was likely a move to create drama for the show. It could have happened to an administration in real life, but I haven't found proof in my searches. If you find any proof, please post in the comments and I will eat my crow happily.

9. Nobody took a vacation
- The staff tried to take vacations, but never seemed to get to them. It seemed like President Bartlett himself never even tried. It's a wonder they weren't driven insane from exhaustion by the second season. They all took after their creator, I guess.

10. Toby as Press Secretary
- If he were ten years older, I would have called Toby Ziegler a curmudgeon. He's an intelligent guy but offers nothing but a stinging wit and not the velvet glove of diplomacy required to deal with the press (yet he was the White House Communications Director. Go figure). Such a man would not (indeed, should not) have been allowed within 100 feet of the press room. Thankfully, his tenure in the role was brief and allocated to the more likely Will Bailey.
There have been many articles regarding life imitating The West Wing. Perhaps the show has a bigger cultural influence than possibly imagined. What do you think? Agree? Disagree?

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I seriously cannot believe the majority of people here on one front.

C.J. Craigg should have never been CoS -- it was a cop-out move because they wanted up the ratings. It is un-believable how naive you guys are 'oh she wasn't that big of a stretch' -- are you kidding me?! of course she was. it was an INSANE stretch.

A.) She had no political contacts what-so-ever.
B.) She had never worked in the political sphere aside from being the Press Sec.
C.) She jumped over two far more experienced candidates for the position.
D.) She went from talking about news stories to dealing with congress about laws.

Lets put it this way the current CoS Dennis McDonough page at the White House states:
"Denis McDonough is currently serving as the President Barack Obama’s Chief of Staff, a position he assumed in February 2013. Prior to assuming this role, he served as the Deputy National Security Advisor from October 2010 to January 2013. He also served as the Chief of Staff of the National Security Staff and as the Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications.

Prior to arriving at the White House, McDonough served as a senior advisor on foreign policy issues on the Presidential Transition Team and on President Obama’s 2008 campaign. Prior to that, he was a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. McDonough has also worked in the Congress, including as Foreign Policy Advisor for Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle."

In-fact this is how he started off his career -- from 1996 to 1999, McDonough worked as an aide to the House Foreign Affairs Committee. So in-short McDonough has had almost 20 years in politics before becoming CoS.

So in comparison, its like a low-level manager (lets say assistant grocery manager) of a grocery-store chain all of a sudden becoming Store Manager. It just doesn't happen. There is a progression and there are reasons for that progression.

You dont' hire a cashier then 6 years later promote that cashier directly to be the front-end manager. There is a progression. You need to be a cashier, then a front-end associate at the desk, then an assistant front-end manager, then finally you can transition into the role of front-end manager.

"given her intelligence, she's perfectly qualified. " -- What? wow. Given her intelligence, lets just promote her to the top of the food-chain why not! ????? How is she perfectly qualified because she is intelligent???? You do realize Josh and Toby are far more intelligent then her (on top of 20 years+ worth of political experience.) right?

"CJ becoming CoS was believable" -- No it really wasn't.

"Press Secretary to CoS is not such a big stretch. The Press Secretary is usually a member of the president's inner circle and is involved in most high-up meetings. " -- What? No she wasn't. She had a role/job to do and only went to meetings that helped her be successful in that job. Does a lowly assistant-grocery go to all the same meetings as the store-manager? No, he doesn't.

December 08 2013 at 2:58 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Allison Solow

Excellent list, Brad. I agree with most of your list, but I have to ask, when did CJ and Hoynes hook up? I can't believe I've watched the show so many times and missed that. It seemed like Danny was always there for CJ... As for the last couple of seasons, post-Sorkin, I think a lot of what Lawrence O'Donnell was responsible for was quiet prescient. Santos becoming the first Latino president prefigured Obama becoming the first African-American president. Vinnick was a maverick like McCain. If only O'Donnell had imagined Palin! That would have been eerie.

July 16 2009 at 7:55 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Allison Solow's comment


I think it was mentioned in the last season when Hoynes was running for president (just a few lines to CJ) and it actually occurred in the time "before" the series starts.

July 16 2009 at 10:03 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I think what would have kept Leo off the VP ticket was the alcoholism and being unmarried, both of which are a sad fact. But he wasn't like a Karl Rove type guy, purely operating in the political arena, he was a congressman (I think) and Secretary of Labor, so he had the cred for VP.

As for CJ Cregg becoming Chief of Staff, I have no problem with that. It's not a natural progression, true. However given the circumstances in which they had to replace Leo (meaning no transition period) and given her intelligence, she's perfectly qualified. What makes her a better pick than Josh is that she has far better management skills and a history of being able to stand up to President Bartlett when she needed to.

In other words, it'd be unusual for a normal Press Secretary to become COS (Tony Snow, for instance, never would get the job), but I don't think it's at all unusual that CJ Cregg becomes COS.

July 16 2009 at 4:37 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

The Josh Lyman / Donna Moss thing wasn't about realism - it was about smart TV scripting. "Keep your audience wanting" is a good way to keep viewers. I bet if the Friends creators had it all to do over again, Ross and Rachel would not have hooked up in season 2 - they would have kept the "wanting to be together" an on-going storyline instead of killing it by having them hook up.

West Wingers waited 7 seasons for hook up. They were well rewarded for their patience. It's just good storytelling. Realism has nothing to do with it.

July 16 2009 at 4:17 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

While I often don't, I have to agree with the tenor of these comments...

- Rumor is Pres. Obama DID offer the SoS post (or an equivalent type of position) to McCain. Whether or not this is true, it's smart president-ing to pick highly-qualified people, and Santos was a "smart guy".

- I think the President stepping down is the biggest oddity, followed by Josh NOT becoming Chief of Staff. CJ becoming CoS is, as others have said above, not nearly as unusual.

- The Toby betrayal is like the Rove betrayal of an active CIA operative working on securing loose nukes (Valerie Wilson). The only thing unrealistic was that it wasn't signed-off by the administration and they didn't try to cover it up.

July 16 2009 at 4:00 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

1. This is the one I'll give you, but I've handled it by just subscribing to a different line of thought... That Bartlet leaked the info through Toby. It was my suspicion all along, and I was proved wrong in the end, but I just choose to believe that instead.
2. Stranger things have happened. I think having a doctor as a wife makes it a much different story. Who would leak it. People that knew it early on were all family and friends. For people like Hoynes and Fitzwallace, it becomes a state secret.
3. People tend to blab when it becomes most beneficial. If I were going to sell the story, I'd wait and see if he became POTUS, because I'd get more money from the tabloids that way.
4. Methinks the original plan was not to have them hook up. Methinks the original plan was she was just cast for one episode. I think the age difference was a factor, and I think Josh's screwed up psyche was another.
5. I think everyone covered the Leo/Cheney connection well enough, so I'll leave that alone.
6. CJ becoming CoS was believable, but doing so so quickly is another story. Josh was probably the best guy for the job, but not the right guy. The relationship between those two people has to be perfect, and is sometimes more important than experience.
7. Yeah, it would. Granted SecState is as political a position on the cabinet as there is, but the current example of Gates being retained as SecDef is good enough to prove.
8. Associate White House Counsil is such a relatively low position that politics wouldn't really factor in. Plus, as it was mentioned when Hayes was hired, cross party hiring also looks good in the press. In fact a friend of mine, a staunch conservative who was hired under the Bush Administration, is now a Deputy Press Secretary with one of the Cabinet Departments.
9. As a viewer, I wouldn't want to see what would happen when these guys leave DC. This is exactly why I've watched through the series six or seven times now, but have still only seen "The Long Goodbye" once.
10. Eh... Different people brief the press other than the Press Secretary. Granted, I don't think it would be advisable for Toby to do it as long as he did, but as Communications Director, he would have had to speak to the press, both on camera and off, quite a bit, even if it wasn't shown in the show.

Brad: I'm glad you enjoyed the show. In my eyes, The West Wing was the best show on TV, ever. I'm sorry I don't see eye to eye with your list, but its great to see people still talking about this show :)

July 16 2009 at 3:23 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I think it's worth pointing out that almost all of these events happened after Aaron Sorkin left the show.

July 16 2009 at 3:16 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Andy Grey


Here are the similarities

Both were former Chief of Staffs
Both were former Cabinet Secretaries (Dick, Defense and Leo, Labor)
Both had health conditions (Leo, alcohol and Dick, 4!!! heart attacks before he was elected VP!)

I know you throw a shouldn't happen somewhere in there but really to not acknowledge that no. 5 happened in the last administration is so annoying and poorly written.

July 16 2009 at 3:01 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Press Secretary to CoS is not such a big stretch. The Press Secretary is usually a member of the president's inner circle and is involved in most high-up meetings. #3 I disagree with. I'm sure there are far more scandals no one has ever heard of. #7 and #8 were not that unbelievable. What was unbelievable was nominating a conservative supreme court judge, even if it was with a liberal one. #9 is very realistic. White House staff has 16-20 hours work days, rarely take vacations and are constantly sleep deprived. #5 is also realistic, see Dick Cheney.

July 16 2009 at 2:58 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Although I am a diehard, seen it a million times "West Wing" fan, I agree with half of your list. I was stunned they would do that with Toby's character and CJ becoming CoS was a stretch, though she did grow into the role pretty well. But Leo as a VP was the hardest to swallow- and I loved John Spencer- because of the health and scandal attached to him.

Still "West Wing" was an awesome show about smart people and how politics can screw up the best intentions.

July 16 2009 at 2:44 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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