‘THE WEST WING’ LEAVES US WITH WHAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN

PUBLISHED: | UPDATED:

Oh, to have been able to see the first 100 days.

As the television series, The West Wing, winds down to it final few episodes, I’m left wondering what a Matt Santos administration would have looked like.

Santos, played by Jimmy Smits, was elected president earlier this season. He has shown himself to be a man of integrity and principle, as has his Republican rival, Arnold Vinick, played by Alan Alda. In last week’s episode, Santos reaches across the aisle and offers Vinick the post of secretary of state. Although the notion is pretty far-fetched, it makes one think of what government could and should be: of the people, by the people and for the people.

I’m going to miss The West Wing. When the show first aired in 1999, the country was saddled with a real-life president whose administration was riddled by repeated scandals. The man who occupied the Oval Office was as slick as a snake-oil salesman, and I wouldn’t believe him if he told me what day of the week it was.

The West Wing, I figured, was going to play off that. We would see lying and deceit. We would get a glimpse into the lives of the president and the first lady and it was sure to be scandalous. I was prepared for the Pennsylvania Avenue version of Dallas or Dynasty. I didn’t think it would interest me, but I gave it a first look.

What I got was intelligent television. Although in the pilot, White House Deputy Communications Director Sam Seaborn unknowingly spent the night with a high-priced call girl. The pilot episode also featured an articulate debate between Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman and members of the Religious Right. When tempers flared and an argument ensued over the First Commandment, we saw President Josiah Bartlet standing in the doorway.

“I am the Lord your God. Thou shall have no other gods before Me,” he says, putting the argument to rest. Ah, those were the days.

In its early days, The West Wing was a consistent winner at the annual award shows. The writing was witty, crisp and the acting superb. The plots held our interest and while sometimes hard to follow, especially to someone with little or no political sensibility, the show never talked down to us. We may not have always understood the inner workings of the government, but the program provided great theater and gave us a peek behind the scenes.

Even when the show’s popularity waned, it held its own in its Wednesday night time slot. The death knell came last September, when NBC executives moved the show to Sunday night. The death of John Spencer, who played Chief of Staff Leo McGarry, all but sealed the show’s fate. In the show, McGarry was pegged to be Santos’ running mate.

Writers and producers worked through the death, writing it into the script. Maybe it was a premonition or maybe it was just good luck if that can be said about anyone’s death, but in this season’s first episode, we are taken three years into the future and the dedication of Bartlet’s presidential library. Several people from his administration have gathered. Former Press Secretary C.J. Cregg is there with her husband, former White House Correspondent Danny Concannon. Charlie Young, Toby Ziegler, Will Bailey and Josh are all with the president. McGarry is absent.

A friend of mine, Karen, who works at The Sun, was thinking of starting a letter-writing campaign to keep the show on the air. A little too late, I’m afraid. That ship has sailed. The show is not coming back.

It’s too bad. The Santos administration would have been fascinating. Fortunately, all seven seasons should be out on DVD soon. I already have my Father’s Day request in.

Dennis Shaughnessey’s e-mail address is dshaughnessey@thevalleydispatch.com.