NBC’s The West Wing aired its final episode thirteen years ago this week, on May 14, 2006. The series has aged … unevenly. Allison Janney’s CJ Cregg remains as brilliant as ever, but Josh’s neg-heavy courtship of his assistant Donna now seems not only immature but probably unethical. Then there’s the political side. Conservatives dismiss the show as a pro-government fantasia where taxation is the panacea for society’s every ill, while liberals routinely point out how it’s rooted in a white, hetero POV that’s actually, ultimately, pretty centrist. Both of those takes are probably correct but what if — and I know this is radical — we looked at The West Wing not as a referendum on the American political system but as a … television program. Take a minute to absorb to the idea.
Compared to other “prestige” television of the era, The West Wing stands out for its fundamental optimism. It aired concurrently with The Sopranos, whose anti-hero Tony begat Breaking Bad’s Walter White and Ray Donovan’s Ray Donovan. The other big “political” show of the time was the violent 24. The end of its run coincided with Deadwood, for chrissakes. A highbrow, serialized drama with the central conceit of “good man tries to do good” instead of “bad man tries to figure out why he is sad” is relatively rare, which may be why the show’s chief strength is also its most oft-cited complaint: the speeches!
The Bartlet staff’s righteous (and self-righteous) elocution might seem — to the cynical — sentimental, treacly, smarmy, or just eye-roll-inducingly dumb. And yeah, sometimes it was (looking at you, “Crackpots and These Women”). And every time they all lined up to say the same thing one after another. But if we set aside these moments, and the fact that it’s somehow always raining during the most dramatic episodes, even the coolest and most jaded viewer can admit that the West Wing rhetoric was, occasionally, just a bit inspiring, especially when delivered by the (fictional) president. If his speeches are neoliberal drivel then, dammit, they are well written neoliberal drivel. Things can be two things.
So take a short break from the endless speech-ifying of the 2020 candidates, won’t you, and let’s appreciate the speech-ifying of President Bartlet, with his 25 best speeches, moments, and one-liners:
25. Taking Down A Conservative Radio Host
“I wanted to ask you a couple of questions while I have you here. I’m interested in selling my youngest daughter into slavery, as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7. She’s a Georgetown sophomore, speaks fluent Italian, always cleared the table when it was her turn. What would a good price for her be? While thinking about that, can I ask another? […] While you may be mistaking this for your monthly meeting of the Ignorant Tightass Club, in this building when the President stands, nobody sits.”
I like to imagine two editors cutting this scene together and having the following conversation.
Editor 1: Wow, Bartlet is not here for that woman using the Bible to justify her homophobia!
Editor 2: Yeah, he sure has a lot of examples of rules in the Bible that we don’t follow because that’s not the way people live anymore.
Editor 1: Which examples are we supposed to leave in the episode?
Editor 2: All of them. We’re using all the examples.
I don’t love that this takedown ends with a reprimand about sitting while the POTUS is standing, but it’s worth noting Bartlet’s inclusion of the word “tightass,” because, as we will come to see, asses are a big thing for him.
24. His First Speech in the Pilot
“You know, my wife Abbey, she never wants me to do anything while I’m upset. Thank you, Mr. Lewis. Twenty-eight years ago I came home from a very bad day at the state house, I tell Abby I’m going out for a drive. I get in the station wagon, put it in reverse, and pull out of the garage full speed. Except I forgot to open the garage door. Abby told me not to drive while I was upset and she was right. She was right yesterday when she told me not to get on that damn bicycle while I was upset but I did it anyway, and I guess I was just about as angry as I’ve ever been in my life. […] Now I love my family, and I’ve read my Bible cover to cover so I want you to tell me, from what part of holy scripture do you suppose the Lambs of God drew their divine inspiration when they sent my twelve-year-old granddaughter a Raggedy Ann doll with a knife stuck through its throat? You’ll denounce these people, Al. You’ll do it publicly. And until you do, you can all get your fat asses out of my White House. CJ, show these people out.
Again with the asses! This speech functions like a thesis statement for how the show works: personal beliefs influence political beliefs; political actions influence personal feelings; these people are going to govern based on what kind of day they are having; Abbey Bartlet is always right and is much smarter than her husband.
23. Proving He Loves Ellie
“The only thing you ever had to do to make me happy was come home at the end of the day.”
Is this a saccharine line that appears more than once in the hysterical supercut of reused “Sorkinisms?” Yes. But as the daughter of the father of a daughter, I also feel that it’s just a really sweet moment. Let Ellie have this.
22. On Gun Control
“Let [the NRA] stand in this room and say that [I like shooting deaths because they bolster the gun-control agenda]. On this day. Let them stand in this room. I like it? She was nine years old.”
This entire episode is full of good moments exploring the gun control debate, but ultimately it comes down to Bartlet cutting through the bullshit and the “politics” to refocus on the victim. Which isn’t, you know, such a bad idea in general.
21. On Painkillers
“Before I go, please let me just say this: I’m seriously thinking about getting a dog.”
Think how much better the rest of the show would have been if he’d gotten a dog.
20. The Moment Josh Fell In Love With Him
“Today for the first time in history, the largest group of Americans living in poverty are children. One in five children live in the most abject, dangerous, hopeless, back-breaking, gut-wrenching poverty any of us could imagine. One in five, and they’re children. If fidelity to freedom and democracy is the code of our civic religion, then surely the code of our humanity is faithful service to that unwritten commandment that says we shall give our children better than we ourselves received. Let me put it this way: I voted against the bill because I didn’t want to make it harder for people to buy milk. I stopped some money from flowing into your pocket. If that angers you, if you resent me, I completely respect that. But if you expect anything different from the president of the United States, you should vote for someone else.”
BRB, convincing my friend to leave his high-paying job at a white-shoe law firm to come work on a presidential campaign with me.
19. Ten-Word Answers
“That’s the ten-word answer my staff’s been looking for for weeks, there it is. Ten-word answers can kill you in political campaigns, they’re the tip of the sword. Here’s my question: what are the next ten words of your answer? Your taxes are too high? So are mine. Gimme the next ten words: How are we gonna do it? Gimme ten after that, I’ll drop out of the race right now … Every once in a while, there’s a day with an absolute right and an absolute wrong. But those days almost always include body counts. Other than that, there aren’t very many un-nuanced moments in leading a country that’s way too big for ten words. I’m the President of the United States, not the president of the people who agree with me. And by the way, if the left has a problem with that, they should vote for somebody else.”
Maybe this is a patronizing argument for centrism or maybe it’s a rousing call for nuance or maybe it’s a plea for sanity in a political landscape warped by Fox News. Or maybe it’s about Twitter.
18. Hips Don’t Lie And Neither Do Assistants
“We won’t discuss this any more for the time being. It’ll be public soon enough. The more conversations you have with me, the more lawyers you’ll have to talk to. They bill in an hour what you take home in a week so we won’t discuss it except to say this: You’re gonna be subpoena’d. I’m confident in your loyalty to me. I’m confident in your love for me. If you lie to protect me, if you lie just once, if you lie just a little, if you lie ’cause you can’t stand what’s happening to me and the people making it happen, if you ever, ever lie, you’re finished with me. You understand?”
The characters on this show lie kind of a lot. They manipulate the press, try to bury scandals, and, of course, there’s plenty of spin. Much of it is in service of a greater good, but still. However, those who are pure of heart — Charlie, Zoey, kidnapped journalists, anti-landmine poets (Laura Dern!) — somehow bring out the best in the politicians around them. However corrupt Bartlet may have let himself become, he never wants to corrupt anyone else.
17. Bartlet Calls The Butterball Hotline
“If I cook it inside the turkey, is there a chance I could kill my guests?”
I used to think that this scene was another example of Bartlet’s need to show off his intellect, and that anyone who cared this much about the right way to cook a turkey had completely missed the point of Thanksgiving. Then I worked for a man who was very particular. Things like sticker size, index card color, and push-pin location had to be just right. And I realized that he knew these things were small and insignificant, but he wanted them done correctly anyway because he wanted everything done correctly. His caring about the little details was proof that he cared about the bigger projects. He was putting everything he had into his job, down to the office supplies. So I changed my tune about nitpicky know-it-alls, and I’d be happy to try Bartlet’s turkey brined in herbs and spices.
16. The Shutdown
“Then shut it down.”
Forgive the hyper-dramatic music in this scene and instead appreciate that Bartlet’s got a backbone. (Of course, no one ever “shut it down” like the cast of 30 Rock.)
15. Good Works
“Catholics don’t believe man is saved through faith alone. Catholics believe faith has to be joined with good works.”
In a flashback, Young Bartlet stands up to his asshole father and, sure, fails to mention the gendered pay gap he originally wanted to talk to him about, but he also lays out the most compelling case yet for his Catholicism: doing good stuff. It’s not enough to have the right beliefs or look to the correct leaders. You have to actually work. A good reminder for everyone who posts petitions online!
“What did liberals do that was so offensive to the liberal party? I’ll tell you what they did. Liberals got women the right to vote. Liberals got African-Americans the right to vote. Liberals created Social Security and lifted millions of elderly people out of poverty. Liberals ended segregation. Liberals passed the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act. Liberals created Medicare. Liberals passed the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act. What did Conservatives do? They opposed them on every one of those things. Every one. So when you try to hurl that label at my feet, ‘Liberal,’ as if it were something to be ashamed of, something dirty, something to run away from, it won’t work, Senator, because I will pick up that label and I will wear it as a badge of honor.”
I tricked you! This isn’t Bartlet, it’s Santos! And it’s basically morphine for liberals! And I love it! He’s making a good point!
13. Just Be Wrong
“No, no ‘however.’ Just be wrong. Just stand there in your wrongness and be wrong and get used to it.”
A useful lesson to us all, and a line my family quotes often.
12. Crime, Boy I Don’t Know
“In the future, if you’re wondering, ‘crime, boy I don’t know’ is when I decided to kick your ass.”
Bartlet and asses! This is kind of a stupid insult, but consider the larger context: Bartlet just ordered the quasi-legal offshore execution of a foreign enemy, forcing him to confront what, exactly, the relationship between the law and morality is. So when his Republican opponent can’t muster anything more profound than “boy, I don’t know” on the subject of crime, Bartlet has every right to be dismissive. Government is serious work for serious people. With serious asses.
11 & 10: American Heroes / Joy Cometh In The Morning
“More than any time in recent history, America’s destiny is not of our own choosing. We did not seek, nor did we provoke an assault on our freedoms and our way of life. We did not expect nor did we invite a confrontation with evil. Yet the true measure of a people’s strength is how they rise to master that moment when it does arrive …”
“Joy cometh in the morning, scripture tells us. I hope so. I don’t know if life would be worth living if it didn’t…”
A bombing at the fictional Kennison State gives Bartlet fodder for two of his best speeches, the kind that out of context seem grandiose but, if they were delivered in the aftermath of actual terror, would reduce an audience to sobs. And maybe the best response to violence is to increase funding for public education. Couldn’t hurt, right?
9. On Showing Up
“I just want to mention that at several points during the evening, I was referred to as both a liberal and a populist. And the fellow fourth from the back called me a socialist. Which was nice, I hadn’t heard that for a while. Actually, I’m an economics professor. My great-grandfather’s great-grandfather was Dr. Josiah Bartlet, who was the New Hampshire delegate to the second Continental Congress, the one that sat in session in Philadelphia in the summer of 1776 and announced to the world that we were no longer subjects of King George III, but rather a self-governing people. We hold these truths to be self-evident, they said. That all men are created equal. Strange as it may seem, that was the first time in history that anyone had ever bothered to write that down. Decisions are made by those who show up. Class dismissed.”
The logic here is not airtight: A person can be both a socialist and an economics professor, and I highly doubt 1776 was the very first time in history that anyone had written about equality. But the invocation of American history is in the service of encouraging the audience to “show up.” Specifically, at the polls. If there’s ever a time to allow patriotic pablum, it’s when you’re telling people to vote. By the way, please vote!
8. Crabby Abbey
“Let me tell you something, jackass! Get as chippy as you want if that makes you feel better. I am your wife … I love you … you have a crisis … you have to deal with it. When it’s done we’ll talk.” —Abbey Bartlett
The better Bartlet: Abigail. This, to me, represents a perfect power couple. She’s furious with her husband (“we had a deal, Jed!”) and she won’t be dismissive of her own feelings, but she recognizes that in the moment, the situation room takes priority. Like the doctor she is, Abbey’s doing triage, and so without sacrificing an ounce of her strength or vulnerability or love, she tells the president to get his goddamn head in the game. A powerful man has a wife who is his equal and treats her with respect! On television! What an idea!
7. Admission Of Guilt
“I was wrong. I was. I was just — I was wrong! Come on, we know that. Lots of times, we don’t know what right or wrong is, but lots of times we do and come on, this is one. I may not have had sinister intent at the outset. But there were plenty of opportunities for me to make it right. No one in government takes responsibility for anything anymore. We fluster, we obfuscate, rationalize. Everybody does it, that’s what we say. So we come to occupy a moral safehouse where everyone’s to blame so no one’s guilty. I’m to blame. I was wrong.”
Can you imagine literally any other lead character of a drama saying this sincerely? No, you cannot, and that is why it is such a powerful moment in how it deals with masculinity, and responsibility, and honesty. Amen.
6. How To Make Decisions
“You have a lot of help. You listen to everybody. And then you call the play.”
This could be the title of a book on leadership, and while I myself would not buy that book, I would nod at it approvingly as I browse.
5. The Great Debate
“Well first of all, let’s clear up a couple of things. Unfunded mandate is two words, not one big word. There are times when we’re fifty states and there are times when we’re one country and have national needs. And the way I know this is that Florida didn’t fight Germany in World War Two, or establish civil rights. You think states should do the governing wall to wall. That’s a perfectly valid opinion. But your state of Florida got twelve point six billion dollars in federal money last year. From Nebraskans and Virginians and New Yorkers and Alaskans with their Eskimo poetry. Twelve point six out of a state budget of fifty billion. I’m supposed to be using this time for a question so, here it is: Can we have it back please?”
Smugly demonstrating your superior intelligence while belittling your debate opponent but not calling anyone else stupid in the process? Plus a subtle call for national unity? The sass!
4. Post Hoc, Ergo, Propter Hoc
“After, therefore because of it. It means one thing follows the other therefore it was caused by the other. But it’s not always true. In fact it’s hardly ever true.”
Another West Wing-ism I truly use in my day to day life. Just because I went on a date after I got a haircut doesn’t mean the haircut got me the date. Just because I said “post hoc, ergo, propter hoc” on the date and he never texted me back doesn’t mean he hates girls who quote Latin aphorisms from old television shows. Sometimes hoc just happens.
(Another important lesson I learned during a West Wing episode: Maps are racist.)
3. Two Cathedrals
“You’re a son of a bitch, you know that? She bought her first new car and you hit her with a drunk driver. What? Is that supposed to be funny? You can’t conceive, nor can I, of the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God, says Graham Greene. I don’t know whose ass he was kissing there, ‘cause I think you’re just vindictive. What was Josh Lyman, a warning shot? That was my son. What did I ever do to yours but praise his glory and praise his name? There’s a tropical storm that’s gaining speed and power. They say we haven’t had a storm this bad since you took out that tender ship of mine in the North Atlantic last year. 68 crew. You know what a tender ship does? Fixes the other ships. Doesn’t even carry guns, just goes around, fixes the other ships and delivers the mail, that’s all it can do. Gratias tibi ago, domine. Yes, I lied. It was a sin, I’ve committed many sins. Have I displeased you, you feckless thug? Three point eight million new jobs, that wasn’t good? Bailed out Mexico, increased foreign trade, thirty million new acres of land for conservation. Put Mendoza on the bench. We’re not fighting a war. I’ve raised three children. That’s not enough to buy me out of the doghouse? Haec credam a deo pio, a deo justo, a deo scito? Cruciatus in crucem. Tuus in terra servus, nuntius fui; officium perfeci. Cruciatus in crucem – you get Hoynes!”
For years I resisted looking up what the Latin translates to, fearing it wouldn’t be as cool as just “a guy yelling at God in Latin.” But as a journalist it’s my duty to look stuff up, so I did, and it translates to, basically, “fuck off.” Anyway. This speech is about grief, plain and simple and devastating. It’s about the anger phase and the bargaining phase rolled into one, cursing the universe that the deal you made (be a good person and good things will happen to you) didn’t work out. We don’t need a television show to teach us that life is deeply unfair, but once in a while, a television show sums up that unfairness as well as any piece of writing ever could. You get Hoynes!
2. Bartlet Gives Charlie The Knife
“Funny you should ask. Charlie, my father gave this to me and his father gave it to him. And now I’m giving it to you. Take a look. The fully tapered bolstering allows for sharpening the entire edge of the blade. These were made for my family by a Boston silversmith named Paul Revere. I’m proud of you, Charlie.”
Sorry, can’t type, something in my eye.
1. thank u, next