Ranking the Characters of “The West Wing” by Punk Cred
I have been on a rerun binge of NBC’s “The West Wing,” drawn in partly due to the HBOMax reunion special, but also because I genuinely enjoyed the show during its original 1999-2006 broadcast run. Martin Sheen’s “President Jed Bartlet” is often held up as the Commander-In-Chief people wish we had, especially in these uncertain blah blah blah. He failed to disclose his multiple sclerosis and covertly had a rogue Middle Eastern minister of defense assassinated - these misdeeds feel quaint in the wake of unprecedented lying, bigotry, and suppression from the current crook in the Oval Office.
My relationship with politics itself sits in an awkward position, having come to age as punk in the historically red state of Arizona, then becoming a grownup (kinda) in Los Angeles. I am invested in the topic, but I don’t idolize politicians or elected officials. I mean, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is cool - a fearless progressive who we’ll need to keep fighting the good fight no matter which old white guy wins the election, she represents the people probably reading this article right now far more than anyone in office (and that includes the annoyingly “most bipartisan Senate Democrat” Kyrsten Sinema WHO LITERALLY HUNG OUT WITH THE SAME PUNKS I DID IN PHOENIX, and yet still got caught giving Trump comments about tax cuts a standing ovation at the State of the Union).
I know plenty of radicals and activists, but I am also friends with military veterans who left the service as outspoken liberals, while there are also people I used to volunteer with at Food Not Bombs who became MAGAheads. You can not always accurately predict where a person falls on the political spectrum based on their level of interest in DIY music, and vice versa.
In the pandemic hellscape of 2020, under the most blatantly fascist administration in modern American history, “The West Wing” plays as fantasy. For example, Alan Alda’s “Arnold Vinick” in the final seasons is a centrist Republican, holding firm moral and ethical positions while having turned away from any faith or religion, less cranky and contrarian than your typical real-life Libertarian, less cynical than a member of Lincoln Project. He’s still culpable for the scourge of conservatism, but he’s far more likable than your former classmates who have become QAnon marks. He loses the election to Jimmy Smits’ “Matt Santos,” a Democratic Congressman, but the incoming President offers him a position as Secretary of State.
This particular storyline was while the show was headed by John Wells, who was a showrunner for medical drama "ER" and who had taken over after the season four departure of creator and showrunner Aaron Sorkin. Neither man was innocent of perpetuating a bipartisan pipe dream which was already dated early into the show’s run. The series never truly confronted the implications of Bush and Cheney in post-9/11 America, let alone did it foresee the true horror of ghouls like Mitch McConnell, Steven Miller, and Steve Bannon. (It’s worth mentioning that Trump’s “The Apprentice” began running on the same network in 2004 - in retrospect, maybe NBC should have just paid for 14 more seasons of “The West Wing” instead and saved us from all this madness.) Sorkin in particular has a very privileged view of the world which bled into his characters' dialogue. I’ve heard good things about “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” like maybe Sorkin is finally writing to the moment, even if Abbie Hoffman’s heyday was over 50 years ago. But past Sorkin projects like "Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip" and "The Newsroom" often felt a few steps behind... which is more than I can say for Sorkin, who dismisses current progressives as too concerned about "transgender bathrooms." So forget that guy. (AOC already told him off for us!)
Nevertheless, there are characters I genuinely enjoy, even if that comes from bias for the wonderful actors and without substantial glimpses into their fictional backstory. Little of their personalities could be gleaned outside of the context of their careers and who they were inside the White House. But that’s what speculation and fan wikis are for, to fill in the details (even if partially headcanon) and allow me to rank the characters of “The West Wing” by their probable punk cred or lack thereof.
Exile In Mandyville - Notable Omissions & Honorable Mentions
There are no Republicans on this list (Ainsley Hayes can kiss my grits). I considered “Glenn Walken,” a Speaker of the House who due to a quirk of the rules of succession temporarily becomes President (the VP had resigned and not yet been replaced, and Bartlett has invoked the 25th Amendment - his daughter has been kidnapped and he recuses himself from governing as an anguished parent). But that would only ever be due to the actor behind the role, John Goodman - he was in a movie directed by David Byrne! He may be punker than me, and I used to go to the same kid’s birthday parties as Dale Crover, so that’s saying something.
I left off numerous assistants (though I suspect Leo’s assistant Margaret was a huge part of the Toronto queercore scene), military personnel, Secret Service, members of the press, peripheral family members, special guests (like Lord John Marbury, who my comedian friend Peter Greyy pointed out to me was very likely at some shows with The Jam or The Damned), and that final season influx of Santos-Vinick attachés. Other notable characters who didn’t make the cut are:
Mandy Hampton - The whole deal on this one season character, played by Moira Kelly, was that for all her bluster, reckless driving, and swatting dudes in the head, she was pretty much a sellout. However, she graduated with an art history degree, so she probably had a couple friends with at least a good record collection.
Charlie Young and Zoe Bartlet - Dulé Hill and Elisabeth Moss played the youngest characters, who you’d think have recommended some cool music to the others. Yet the band that plays the inauguration? Barenaked Ladies. DISQUALIFIED.
Kate Harper - Right leaning CIA Agent.
Will Bailey - Total nerd.
And now, put away your Ronny Jordan album, put on some Bad Brains instead, and let’s see who’s most likely to start a circle pit when we come down from Hanover for chili tonight.
a distant 10th - Josh Lyman
Sugar Lips isn’t all bad - he wanted to be a ballerina and put on talent shows as a kid, he used to get picked on by guys like Ryan Pierce would’ve hung out with at Harvard, and actor Bradley Whitford gave us layers upon layers in his portrayal of this arrogant but sympathetic Connecticut elite that made us feel for him when he got shot. But unless his cousin Kevin gave him passes to Warped Tour, there is nothing remotely punk rock about Lemon Lyman at all. He’s a Mets fan, so maybe at some point he bonded with Ad-Rock and MCA on that, but that would’ve been long after “Cooky Puss.”
9th - President Jed Bartlet
I know... he’s a New Hampshire prep school chess dork. And there’s no such thing as a punk rock president. But he did fight against banning books as a teenager and his politics are at least more leftist than Michael Graves.
8th - Donna Moss
The Minnesota native is about the same age as Felix Von Havoc, but moved to Wisconsin at an early age, so she missed the whole crust scene (what a DIS-appointment). She probably would’ve been too young for Tar Babies or Violent Femmes. But maybe before she dropped out of UW-Madison, she went to O’Cayz Corral, or ended up at a party a couple hours away where Boris the Sprinkler was hanging out, or something.
7th - Leo McGarry
Now we’re getting somewhere! The Chief of Staff, played by the departed John Spencer, came from the most messed up home of any of the characters. He grew up in Chicago, went to ‘Nam, and was a big boozer and pill popper. So we could have partied! But Leo was already working for a defense contractor by the time Vic Bondi was getting started singing Springsteen covers. Although maybe the two met at Kentucky Fried Chicken and went to an Aragon Ballroom show or two.
6th - Dr. Abbey Bartlet
Yes, she’s getting residual Stockard Channing points, because Rizzo. But as a young woman, the future Dr. Abbey lured an aspiring Roman Catholic priest at Notre Dame away from the collar, and as First Lady violated several AMA rules to obtain drugs to surreptitiously shoot up her husband with. She deserves a room named after her at the Chelsea.
Richard Schiff with Elvis Costello, fellow thespian and wife Sheila Kelley, and two of the B-52s - really trying to score points for this list!
5th - Toby Ziegler
Toby’s a baseball nut from Brooklyn - right there, that’s like half a dozen dudes I used to drink with at bar shows. But the son of a Murder Inc gangster and brother of girls who went to protests in the tumultuous 1960s, this character played by Richard Schiff is old enough to have just missed being interested in CBGBs, by then already running campaigns in the Bronx. I bet he’d hit it off with Scott Radinsky, though.
4th - Sam Seaborn
D&D geek. Friend to sex workers. Laguna Beach punker... maybe? I mean he probably visited Cash for Chaos at least once. He doesn’t know where the cool restaurant is, he doesn’t care about the Tommy Hilfiger party, he just wants to go boating. Whatever, Rob Lowe was in a Go-Go’s video, he’s earned this spot. (But my wife was in a Donnas video, so she’s more punk than Rob Lowe.)
3rd - Amy Gardner
Amy Gardner wants revolution, grrrl style nnnooowww. Before Mary-Louise Parker was on “Weeds” competing with Lauren Graham’s “Lorelei Gilmore” for the title of TV’s most problematic hot mom, she was the feminist AF lobbyist on 25 episodes of the series. But... ugh, you don’t think Amy turned out to be a TERF, do you? She was an Issues Director for the show’s equivalent of the real life NOW, and they get trans issues right, so I’m going to assume Amy was a decent ally. But I hope she was more into Spitboy than Sleater-Kinney, or whatever other boring PNW bands. Maybe, like, Autoclave would be a safer bet?
a strong 2nd - C.J. Cregg
Besides being a fan favorite (played by the amazing Allison Janney) and rightfully everyone’s number one crush, Berkeley grad (and likely Gilman frequenter) Claudia Jean is responsible for the most explicit reference to punk in the series during her visit home and reunion with an old boyfriend in “The Long Goodbye”:
CJ: "So what are you up to now?"
Marco: "Uh... sorta... living in Paris."
CJ: "Paris? You were a baseball-playing punk rocker."
Marco: "And you were the smartest, funniest, saddest girl in Dayton."
CJ: "Thank you. I think that might've been a compliment."
The best ever death metal band in Denton has got nothing on her. Hail C.J.
But she’s not number one punk. There is one even more hardcore than she.
1st - Debbie Fiderer
Alpaca farmer, professional gambler, rodeo cowboy lover and friend to The Hollies, shows up zonked to her first interview to be the President’s secretary, ends up working for a man she once suggested should have his drinking water spiked with arsenic... the former Mrs. DiLaguardia may be a “Crazy Horse kind of girl,” but actress Lily Tomlin used to get into fistfights in dive bars on the Lower East Side and pal around with Debbie Harry. Any other argument is invalid.
I mean, unless I missed Mrs. Landingham dancing at an Alice Bag show or something.
Okay... what’s next?
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