The West Wing: The Biggest Crises President Bartlet Faced

The West Wing crammed way more than two terms of drama into President Jed Bartlet’s administration.

President Jed Bartlett (Martin Sheen), Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff), and Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe) on The West Wing
Photo: Steve Shapiro | NBC

Aaron Sorkin‘s The West Wing is one of the most optimistic shows to air on television. From 1999 to 2006, President Josiah “Jed” Bartlet, played by the versatile veteran actor Martin Sheen, and his idealistic staff of deep thinkers presented the illusion that Capitol Hill was where the finest minds in America worked together to find the right answers, and got bonus points for the most self-righteous. The NBC series began the same year as HBO’s The Sopranos, and could be seen as its polar opposite, though the two shows had many similarities. Both were considered dramas, but had so many individual laugh lines they veered into comedy. Each featured a strong leader who faced crises, at home and abroad.

Starting with the very first episode, President Bartlet confronted beltway blowback, global dissension, and harsh life-threatening decisions. Some of these issues were personal, because a president’s private life affects the political process. If the President of the United States suffers, so does his reasoning. Luckily, regardless of the circumstances, Bartlet’s wit remained unaffected, if sometimes far harsher than his norm. National scares tend to do that.

The series focused on The White House staff more than the president, and over the course of seven seasons, the DC professionals brought on their own challenges. Chief of Staff Leo McGary (John Spencer) fends off substance abuse issues which could take down the administration. Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford) will take a bullet for the president, and almost lose his senior assistant Donna Moss (Janel Moloney) to a car-bombing in a foreign nation.

Communications Director Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff) is the brother of an astronaut, and the son of a mobster with the mind of a political monster who is not averse to bullying adversaries or going over their heads, regardless of which side of the aisle they vote. Deputy Communications Director Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe) is so cute when he accidentally sleeps with, and subsequently wants to save, a call girl (Lisa Edelstein), we just want to grab him by the ear and walk him into a wall. This is something Press Secretary C.J. Cregg (Allison Janney) does verbally, to each of her co-workers over the course of the series. It is the reason she ultimately becomes chief of staff.


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