Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Why have David Arnold and Jeff Zentner started writing West Wing fan fic?

I discovered The West Wing in the summer of 2005, while living in a tiny cabin in the mountains of North Carolina. I had no internet and I'd rent episodes on DVD at Blockbuster and watch three or four every night. I was instantly drawn into this world of hypercompetence, hyperintellect, and heightened dialogue. Everything about it hit me on the deepest emotional level, from the multifaceted characters to the rich, autumnal color palette of the show to how respectfully Aaron Sorkin’s writing handled political differences. I had this at the forefront of my mind when I was writing The Serpent King. You can make the consumer of your story hate a character, but don't do it by making them a clown.

A good friend of mine kept pestering me to watch The West Wing, and I remember thinking, "Why would I subject myself to hours of dramatized CNN?" Then one day he walked up to me and handed me a briefcase. It was, of course, the 7 season DVD box set. My friend put his hands on my shoulders, looked me deep in the eyes, and said, "You can thank me later." And I did. Profusely.

It wasn't easy, in 2005, watching a show about a brilliant president who could quote Marcus Aurelius off the cuff and rarely made bad decisions. In fact, it was excruciating. But it was comforting at the same time. It reminded me how art allows us to escape temporarily into a world that is as it ought to be.

Like Jeff, I was hooked immediately. The show is unique in that while it is historical fiction, it is also a bit of wish fulfillment. I'm an idealist. And while the show has definite flaws, it is largely driven by idealism, representative of a world where our leaders may not always make the right choices, but certainly not for lack of trying.

Jeff and David:
Now, as we near the end of a presidency that surpasses even Sorkin’s imagination (at least as expressed on The West Wing), and face the prospect of another presidency that surpasses his imagination in a different direction, we found our minds going frequently to The West Wing. We wanted to know how these characters we loved so much would process the events of 2016.

So one day, while sitting in a Target parking lot, I texted my buddy and fellow West Wing-O-phile David Arnold, and said “let's find out.”

I texted back, “Okay.”


CAST (in order of appearance)

Ainsley Hayes, White House Counsel
Daniel “The Dan” Vlech, Republican presidential nominee
“Season Two” Sam, Former Deputy White House Communications Director
Toby Ziegler, White House Communications Director
Donna Moss, Senior Assistant to Josh Lyman
CJ Cregg, White House Chief of Staff
Charlie Young, Personal Aide to the President
Will Bailey, Deputy White House Communications Director
Josh Lyman, Deputy White House Chief of Staff
Josiah “Jed” Bartlet, President of the United States
Leo McGarry, Former White House Chief of Staff

Ainsley Hayes was a highly competent individual, not one to dally, and nowhere was this trait more evident than in the way she ate. Mostly, she enjoyed eating apples while she walked. It was one of her small pleasures in life, and for as many hours as she logged (and as a little screen time as she received), she took no small pleasures for granted. And so she walked (briskly, as ever), and ate (feverishly, as ever), and considered the many possible reasons Josh Lyman had called her to his office.

This apple, though. It really was delectable.

She arrived at Josh’s office to find it empty. Donna, his assistant, was also gone. It was a Thursday night, 8ish or so. Toby, she thought, the crack of her bite echoing through the hallowed halls. Ainsley liked the man; certainly, he was brilliant in his own right, but he did seem to prize himself on being the saddest sack in the room. And yet—when people congregated, who was usually right in the thick of it, but Eeyore himself.

Ainsley reached Toby’s office and the core of her apple at roughly the same time. Shame, she thought, savoring the last juicy morsel. Inside (the office, not the apple core), a group had gathered to watch newly minted Republican presidential nominee, Daniel Vlech, give his acceptance speech at the RNC. CJ sat on the edge of Toby’s desk; Toby sat behind it, bouncing his rubber ball against the wall, while Sam stood cross-armed in front of the TV. Charlie was on the couch with Donna, along with some mouse-faced guy in glasses who wore a distinct look of just happy to be here on his face. 

Everyone was glued to the TV.

Let me tell you another thing: the people who laugh at America now? They’ll regret it. They’ll regret it from the first minute I step into the White House. We’re gonna show the world what happens when you mock America. We will wipe the smiles off so many faces. We. Will. Be. Strong. Again! The crowd went absolutely nuts. Vlech waited for the cheers to subside before continuing, an unkind, almost involuntary smirk pulling at the corners of his mouth.

“Your guy’s an idiot,” said Sam. His eyes never shifted from the TV, but there was no question he was talking to Ainsley.

“A total idiot,” agreed CJ, “and I’ll tell you what else.”

“A liar,” said Sam. “A bumbling bigoted bloviating buffoon.”

CJ nodded. “He’s an idiot and he’s a liar and, you know, that other thing.”

Ainsley tossed the core in the trashcan, made her way over to Toby’s desk and an open box of pizza. “Yeah, he’s not my guy,” she said, trying to decide whether to go for the bigger slice, or the slice with most pepperonis. She pulled a few pepperonis from the one that could afford it, placed them strategically on the big slice, and dug in. Mid-bite, she turned to Donna. “Is he around?”

            Toby let out awkward laugh, followed by one of his signature throat clears. “Sorry. I’ll just be over here watching Vlech bloviate.”

The Republican nominee had only been speaking for a few minutes, but already he was hoarse, with a red face and that shaggy, unkempt hedge of hair for which he was so well known. Under this presidency, we have raised the white flag of surrender not only to radical Islamists, but to the very idea of fiscal responsibility in government. Our national debt keeps growing at an unprecedented rate...

Toby exhaled loudly through his nose, stood, and hurled his ball against the wall. “Not”—He caught the ball, threw it again—“true. 

“He does bloviate, doesn’t he,” said Charlie from the couch.

“Bloviates with the best of ‘em,” said CJ.

“And yet,” said Ainsley, gesturing around the room. “You sit, and you watch.”

“What’re we gonna do?” said Sam. “It’s like a train wreck.”
“Not quite,” Toby muttered. “Train wrecks have conceivable upsides.”

“Tell me about it,” said Ainsley under her breath. She polished off the crust, grabbed a second slice, and looked back at Donna. “So. Josh?”

“Trapped in the residence,” said Donna.

“Like in a cage?”

“Ha,” said CJ, eyes on the TV. “That’s one way of putting it.”

Donna said, “Josh is watching the RNC with the President and Leo, and he can’t leave until the President says so.”

Toby let out another little laugh, another throat clear. “Sorry,” he said. “Back to the bloviator.” Clearly he enjoyed the image of Josh being stuck in a room with the President and what was surely an endless commentary of historical references and trivial minutiae galore.

“And why is he doing such a thing as this?” asked Ainsley, wondering if anyone would notice her eating a third slice. They were all pretty zombie-eyed on Vlech, so… maybe not?

“He lost a bet with the President,” said Donna. “Winner picked loser’s punishment.”

“What was the bet?”

Charlie said, “The President bet Josh couldn’t go one week without using the phrase, ‘I drink from the keg of glory.’”

“The keg of glory,” said Ainsley, swiping a third slice like a boss.

“You know,” said Donna. “That thing he does? When he wins at something? ‘I drink from the keg of glory, bring me the finest bagels and muffins in all the land.’”

Ainsley took a bite, said nothing.

“You know,” said Donna, her eyes wandering as some sudden realization dawned on her. “Saying that out loud just now…” She turned to the mouse-faced guy next to her. “My job is kind of weird, isn’t it?”

Mouse Face nodded. “I’m afraid so.”

Ainsley chewed, studied this man she’d never met. “You work here?”

“I do,” said Mouse Face, suddenly scooting to the edge of the couch, lowering his voice to a dull whisper. “Started back in Season Four. I’m Will Bailey, Sam’s replacement.”

Ainsley gazed over at Sam, who gave her that little wave, half-smile, eyebrow raise. “So… if you’re Sam’s repla”—

“Shhh,” said Will, both hands out, palms down. “Season Two Sam is easily distraught, we don’t talk about this in front of him.”  

Ainsley watched as Sam checked his pager. “Season Two Sam?”

“Think of him as the Sam Seaborn sweet spot. Still innocent and loyal enough not to throw away his entire career on a hopeless Congressional pipe dream, but smart enough not to fall for a one-dimensional call girl.”

“So… that’s not Sam?”

“It is and it isn’t,” said Will, shrugging. “But in a way, we all are and aren’t, aren’t we?”

Ainsley narrowed her eyes at this Will Bailey character. “Something’s off with you, but I can’t quite…”

Will’s face fell. Next to him, Donna placed a hand on his shoulder in consolation. “Will wasn’t written by—you know who.”

“Ah,” said Ainsley. “A lot has changed since I’ve been up here.”

“Up here?” said Will.

“Oh, I’ve been in the stuck down in the Steam Pipe Trunk Distribution Venue since Season Two.”

Will pulled his glasses down a few inches, eyed Ainsley over the top of them. “The Steam Pipe Trump”—

“Trunk. The Steam Pipe Trunk Distribution Venue. It’s fine down there, such as it is, a little detached from the rest of the building, which accounts for me not hearing about Sam’s departure from the West Wing until now, but I’m partial to dancing in a robe, so the—

“Wait,” said Sam, pulling his eyes away from the screen. “Say what?”

“Oh, boy,” said Will, head in hands.

“I’m so sorry,” said Ainsley, mapping a route back to the pizza box. “It just slipped.”

“What is this about my ‘departure from the West Wing?’” asked Sam. “What happens to me?”

“Sam,” said Donna, “we’re really not supposed to”—

“Oh, God,” said Sam. “Tell me I don’t get sent to Mandyville.”

“Orange County, actually,” said Will, whose brow had turned shiny with the sudden attention. “I think you just wanted off the show, though.”

Silence for a moment, and then…


Everyone looked at Toby, who suddenly appeared more sheepish than usual. “Did I just say that out loud? Sorry.”

Sam’s shoulders fell, and he said to no one in particular, “I suddenly feel the need to brush my teeth.” Then, looking around the room: “I can’t imagine what would compel me to abandon the West Wing. You guys are like family to me. Brothers, sisters.” He then focused in on CJ and his voice cracked. “Wives.”

CJ choked on her water. “Pardon?”

Safe to say, in the wake of sudden and surprising admissions of love, the room—at least for the moment—did not give a shit how many slices of pizza Ainsley Hayes ate.

Sam strode across the room, took CJ’s hands in his. “Claudia Jean, I never told you this, but—I’m crazy about you. The moment they changed your hair, I knew I had to have you. Come to Orange County with me. I know it’s crazy, and… you and Danny have that adorable will-they-won’t-they thing going, but… I think we can have that too. So what do you say?”

The room fell into near silence, the only sound that of Vlech bloviating about the size of his feet.

Before CJ had a chance to answer, Will cleared his throat. “Uh, Sam?”


“You’ve been gone a couple years, dude.”

Silence again, as Sam and CJ looked at each other, while the rest of the room was already trying to figure out how to get things back to normal.

Awkwaaaard,” said Toby.

Sam’s pager went off; everyone in the room tried not to laugh, while Sam, crestfallen, stepped toward the open door. “I’m going to take a walk. I have a lot to think about. And some teeth in desperate need of brushing.”

Ainsley wiped her mouth with a napkin. “Oh, Season Two Sam?”


“If you happen to come across a vending machine that has Fresca, and if you happen to find it in your heart to purchase one, and if you wouldn’t mind bringing it back when you come, it would be, by me, much appreciated.”

Season Two Sam nodded. “Sure thing, Ainsley. Sounds delicious, actually. I think I’ll have one too. Anybody else? Fresca?”

“Sure,” said CJ. “I’ll have one.”

Season Two Sam nodded—as if this agreement to share a Fresca with CJ was some measure of consolation—and then walked out of the room.

            Vlech could now be heard bloviating about how fast his hair grew.

“So,” said Will. “Tell me more about this Steam Pipe Trump Distrib”—

“Guys,” Charlie said quietly.

They turned back to the TV screen.

…You know whose lives matter? The lives of the police officers who are killed doing their jobs. The lives of the gay and lesbian Americans murdered by radical Islamists just for practicing their lifestyle. All American lives matter and as commander-in-chief, I will protect all American lives from threats foreign and domestic. I won’t worry about political correctness. I won’t let those who control the media dictate my job to me.

Toby stared down the glowing Vlech. “‘Those who control the media.’ Why, to whom could you possibly be referring, Mr. Vlech?”

“This is isn’t funny anymore,” Charlie said.

“Was it ever?” Donna asked.

“It was,” CJ said, “when he couldn’t possibly win. When he’d go on Conan and they’d joke about how his hair looked like a raccoon clinging to his scalp in a windstorm. When he was just the billionaire owner of tech company best known for its smart phone game called ‘Bird Turds.’ It was funny then. When nobody thought he had a chance.”

“I always knew,” Ainsley said quietly.

All eyes went to her.

“Knew what?” asked Charlie.

At that moment, Toby’s phone rang. As he was answering, CJ’s cell dinged, Will’s cell donged, Charlie’s cell buzzed, and Donna’s cell chirped. Ainsley used the moment to reach for another slice of pizza, only to find the box empty. Around her, everyone looked from their cell phones to each other, while Toby listened on the phone for moment, said, “Yeah,” then hung up. He put the rubber ball in a drawer, looked around the room, said, “Let’s go.”

Ainsley watched as, one by one, they filed out of Toby’s office, each with a singular light of duty in their eyes—they held their chins up, walked with purpose and poise, and Ainsley knew in that moment that whatever had just happened, she wanted to be a part of it.

She hustled after them, falling into step beside Donna. All her life, Ainsley had been criticized for walking too fast, but in the West Wing, walking fast seemed to be a prerequisite to working here.

“I was really looking forward to that Fresca,” said Ainsley. “I always crave something fruity after pizza, like as a palate cleanser.”

Donna shook her head, pulled an apple out of nowhere, handed it to her.

“Oh my God, Donna, you are a life saver,” said Ainsley. “Where did you even”—

“I usually carry something around. Have you seen Josh when he’s peckish?”

“You ever try eating an apple from the top?”

They turned to see Sam sipping a Fresca.

“Hey Season Two Sam,” Ainsley said. “I thought you were off brushing your teeth and being despondent.”

“I finished the one and I got over the other,” he said. “If you eat it from the top, it disappears, core and all. You can eat the whole thing.”

Ainsley took an especially large bite out of the side of her apple. “I think I’ll stick with going in from the side. I’m a traditionalist.”

“Color me unsurprised.”

“I refuse to take the bait, Sam. God’s been making apples a point of contention between men and women for too long.”

“Fine,” said Sam. “Let’s not argue.”

“Sounds great.”

“Let’s just talk facts.”

“Can we not do this right now?” said Ainsley.

“You’re a Republican. Your party’s new nominee—who, by the way, has never been elected to anything—but that’s literally the least of my concerns, so we’ll let it slide for now—is currently spewing lies and slurs into a microphone, while white people in straw hats and bow ties chant his name with terrifying fervor, which is so historically familiar, I’m… look… actual goosebumps. Vlech has given me actual goosebumps, and not in a good way.”

“Are there good goosebumps, though?” said Ainsley.

“I enjoyed the books growing up,” Charlie interjected.

“I’m just saying,” said Sam. “Your guy’s an idiot, and a liar, and a bumbling bigoted bl”—

“A bumbling bigoted bloviated buffoon,” said Ainsley. “I heard you the first time, Sam, and I’m just saying, he’s not my guy.”

Their talking did not slow their walking. If anything their walking sped up their talking. This sort of thing should really have a name, thought Ainsley.

“So,” said Donna. “What snapped you out of your despondency?”

Season Two Sam raised his pager. “I received a very important page, and realized something.” Donna and Ainsley stifled a laugh; oblivious, Season Two Sam continued. “I realized we all go through different seasons in life. Some last longer than others, some just feel longer than others. Some seasons, your critics lavish you with awards, some seasons they rip you a new one. But I serve at the pleasure of the President, and if I have to be stuck in the second season to continue doing so, then by golly, that’s where I’ll be.”

Ainsley grabbed the Fresca out of his hand. “Attaboy, Season Two Sam.”

Right in the middle of a victory gulp, Ainsley bumped into Charlie, who had been walking in casually quick-witted conversation with CJ, who ran into Toby, who had been barking at Will, who, in an effort to avoid colliding into a large bust of Woodrow Wilson, had swerved too far in the opposite direction, tripping over a doorjamb, collapsing on the hallway floor, and effectively turning their walking and talking into more of a crashing and burning.

“Everyone okay?” asked Will, pushing his glasses up his nose, slowly rising to his feet.

Sam was in the middle of reviving Donna, who, in the hubbub, had been propelled against the wall and knocked unconscious; CJ and Charlie, being in the middle of the pack, had taken the brunt of the collision from both ends, but they seemed to be okay. Once everyone was on their feet, pants dusted, backs and necks realigned, Toby looked around at everyone. “This never happened. Agreed?”

“Agreed,” said everyone.

They started walking again, this time a little more carefully.

“Where are we going, by the way?” asked Ainsley.

CJ said, “The President’s residence,” and everyone but Toby chuckled a little.

Ainsley polished off her apple. “Do we know why?”

“Yeah,” said Charlie. “He called.”

They walked the rest of the way in—what is it called again, thought Ainsley?—oh, right. Silence. They just walked; no one talked. Ainsley couldn’t be sure, but she felt a communal sense of civic duty, as if each of them knew their time was coming to an end, that this job was the first line of their obituaries, and that now they had to make the most of every second they were here. It wasn’t as if they didn’t know this day would come. They did. But even Ainsley couldn’t deny the scent of nervousness in the air, that everything they’d achieved these past eight years—not all of it to my liking, to be sure, she thought—was about be flushed down the drain by a man best known for funding a smart phone game wherein users played birds whose objective was to crap on the heads of tourists in New York City.   

Arriving at the residence, a Secret Service agent led them to a second floor Sitting Hall just outside President Bartlet’s bedroom. There was a grand window overlooking the West Wing and the OEOB—Ainsley walked over to the window, gazed out at the view, and wondered if this would be the last time she saw it like this.

“Hey, guys.” Josh Lyman stood outside the President’s bedroom door, his hair a mess, his brown suit looking as if it had been shot directly from a cannon, haphazardly finding its way onto his delicate frame.

“Josh Lyman,” said CJ, “You seem to have survived?”

“Just… barely,” said Josh, a boyish grin on his face. He pointed to the bedroom door. “The President and Leo are coming right out.”

Everyone had one eye on the TV in the corner. The volume was low, but not so low they couldn’t hear Vlech and his legion of homogenous followers, chanting… chanting… chanting.

“You know what this is about?” Charlie asked, turning his back on the TV.

Josh nodded, sat on the arm of the closest seat. “Yeah, but. He wanted to tell you.” Only now did he notice Ainsley lingering near the back of the crowd by the window. He blinked, and his eyes took on that Lyman hue of ire they were all so familiar with. “Your guy’s an idiot.”

Sam pointed at Josh. “That’s exactly what we said.”

“He’s an idiot and a liar and a… blowhard.”

Sam nodded. “Exactly what we said. Only we said bloviator.”

“He’s not my guy,” said Ainsley.

“You’re a Republican,” said Josh.

“Listen, I’m—” Ainsley began. The door opened. She and the others snapped to attention as the president and Leo walked in. Everyone stood.

“So,” President Bartlet said, “I had to step out for a moment. Who wants to fill me in on what I missed?” He pointed to the TV. “The concrete policy proposals? The expressions of grace and compassion? Anyone?”

“I assume more racism, misogyny, xenophobia, homophobia self-aggrandizement, with a soupçon of antisemitism to keep things interesting, Mr. President,” Toby said. “But I am only assuming.”


Everyone in the room shifted their eyes from the President to the TV—everyone except Toby. “Mr. President, why are we here?” he asked.

President Bartlet sighed, took a seat. “Because I assume there’s more racism, misogyny, xenophobia, homophobia, self-aggrandizement, with a few soupçons of antisemitism to come, Toby. And I won’t have my people subjected to that without their president by their side, so… pull up a chair or a sofa and let’s get through this mess together, shall we? Can I get anyone anything? Popcorn? Bugles? Do we have Bugles? Leo says we don’t have Bugles. Popcorn it is.”

The group took seats and began grabbing handfuls of popcorn from large bowls brought in by silent stewards.

Leo nodded to Ainsley and then the TV. “Your guy’s an idiot.”

“That’s exactly what we told her,” said Josh, looking at Season Two Sam. “Isn’t that exactly what we told her?”

Sam nodded, grabbing a handful of popcorn. “And a liar and a bloviator.”
“Wait a minute.” The President seemed to notice Sam for the first time. “What are you doing here?”

“Oh, I’m not really here,” said Season Two Sam.

“You’re not?”

“No. We don’t think so, anyway.”

“Well, you’re sitting in my house, but, you know, if you say so.”

“I’m sorry,” said Ainsley, “but may I speak in my defense?”

“I’m going to say yes before Leo gets a chance to tell you no,” President Bartlet said, throwing Leo a triumphant you’re welcome, pal smile.

She smiled her pecan-pie-sweet “bless your heart” smile that had come to be known as her threat display, the way some frogs could inflate their throats.  A smile that anyone who knew her well knew well to run from—quickly. “Respectfully, I am a conservative,” she said, “I’m for lower taxes, lower regulation, generally less government interference and generally more liberty. So when I hear Vlech talking about building a 100-foot high wall along the entirety of the U.S.-Mexican border, presumably with tax dollars, and starting wars at the drop of a hat, presumably with tax dollars, and deporting 11 million people, presumably with government resources, and yes, tax dollars, I don’t hear a conservative, I hear someone who’s going to replace one type of government meddling and waste with an even more intrusive, Banana-Republic-dictatorship style of government meddling and waste. So while Vlech is most certainly an idiot, he is most certainly not my guy.”

Leo stood there, the hangdog look of one left holding one’s own ass settling upon his face.

President Bartlet smirked. “Well, Leo. There you go.”

Leo shook his head. “I stand corrected. And comforted.”

They settled in and watched as Vlech bragged (jokingly, although he wasn’t very good at jokes) about how each one of his wives was more beautiful than the last and promised a similar dissatisfaction with anything but the best for America and Americans. He called Diane Carson “Crazy Carson” and blamed her for an attack on the American embassy in Mali.

The small group joked and yelled retorts at the screen. The atmosphere gradually shifted from melancholy to one of rowdy camaraderie—college friends watching the big game.

And then, almost as if Vlech could see them having a little too much fun:

My fellow Americans, there are many among us who do not subscribe to our values. Who do not wish to be part of the American dream and who are instead pursuing their own interests at the expense of the American dream for others. As president, we will find these people who are a fetter on the American dream and we will send them back to where they came from to pursue their interests there. The radical Islamists. The illegal aliens. Those preventing true Americans from living the American dream. We will send them back. So that America can be a proud nation once more, we will send them back. So that America may reclaim its destiny as a great nation, we will send them back.

The massive convention crowd was in a frenzy, their amorphous chants reaching a deafening level. Inside the residence, the room went silent as each of them strained to make out the words of the chant.

Leo leaned in and cocked his head, squinting. “What are they—”

“Send them back,” Toby said quietly, the “ck” in “back” like a knife blade across his tongue. “It’s a crowd of Americans, chanting ‘send them back’ about other Americans.” Toby sounded despondent under the best of circumstances. He sounded despondent when ordering buffalo wings and when someone brought donuts. This was something beyond despondence.

The room was already quiet, but a hush fell over the tiny assembly that was quieter than quiet. Negative noise. All but the TV screen, where the chant continued, Vlech with a grim smirk, raising his hands like a demented conductor—or sorcerer perhaps—egging on the crowd.

            Send them back. Send them back. Send them back.

“This is ugly,” Josh murmured, shaking his head, fixated on the screen. “We’re in uncharted waters here.”

“Other nations have charted these waters,” Toby said, “and there are still people alive who remember.”

“I've lost count of the ways what he's proposing is illegal,” Will said.

“Something tells me the law is not at the forefront of his thinking,” said Leo.

“Oh for the days when it was only my uterus that was at stake,” CJ said.

“Elections always make me nervous, worried,” Donna said, the slightest tremor around the edges of her voice. “But I’ve never been afraid during an election. I’m afraid now.”

A murmur of agreement swept the room. Nods.

President Bartlet stood, the remote in his hand, and faced everyone, turning his back on Vlech. Immediately all eyes snapped to him. All stood.

“Okay, my turn to talk.” President Bartlet glanced over his shoulder at the screen, where Vlech was still blustering on, and then back at the small crowd. “Does anyone have any objection to my silencing the bloviator?”

“He does bloviate, Mr. President,” Charlie said.

“No sir,” Leo said with grim resolve. “Silence away.”

Nods and murmurs of approval.

President Bartlet pointed the remote over his shoulder without looking back and the screen went black and silent. He set down the remote and folded his arms. He surveyed the crowd that had formed a loose semicircle around him.  “It would be a wonderful thing if humanity were better at remembering and learning from its mistakes. I suppose men and women would never get married if we had better memories. But in terms of politics, we’d be a more exalted species if we didn’t make the mistakes of past generations. A whole lot of human societies over history have made the mistake of handing power over to men who promised to make them safe from imagined dangers; who told them that everything that was wrong with their lives was the fault of someone else. Someone who could be punished. And it happens that they’re the man to do the punishing. So if you’re afraid, I can’t blame you. Nowhere is it written that America can’t make mistakes and boy have we. And we’ll do it again.

“But I don’t think America is destined to make this particular mistake at this particular time. America is an idea. A wonderful story. A story in which the protagonist, the American people, eventually does the right thing. I believe goodness and the desire to get it right are woven into our national fiber.

            “Right now, I imagine Diane Carson is watching what we just watched. In fact, if I know Secretary Carson, she didn’t turn off Vlech’s speech like we did. That’s a luxury we have that she doesn’t. If he’s talking, she’s watching, taking notes, the way she did when she was getting the intelligence briefings that led to the raid that killed Sheikh Al-Saud. The way she did when Mali was catching fire. The way she did when white nationalists attacked a French mosque. The way she marked up bills as a senator. The way she was rumored to have marked up Jack Carson’s speeches when he was president. She’s taking notes and she’s girding for battle because she knows it's going to be a knife fight and an ugly one. But Diane Carson is a knife fighter and just like the country she's seeking to lead, she's not perfect, but she's good at her core.

    “And next year at this time, she’s going to be standing where you’re standing, maybe watching the TV you just watched. Maybe she’ll have changed the decor back to how she had it when she lived here the first time. And I’ll tell you why I believe that. Because the first woman to be elected president while simultaneously defeating a two-bit fearmonger with bad hair who does a decent Fascist impression makes a pretty great chapter in a pretty great story. I think the kind of mistake Vlech is asking America to make runs too contrary to who we are and we won't make it. We won’t make it because we’re too good at our core.

“Every election is important, gang, but this is the one for which we’ll have to answer to history. So let's go out and win this thing, shall we?”

            There was a quick beat as the president’s words took purchase, and then the group buzzed to life. They didn’t even notice the president slip back into his bedroom.

            Donna, I need you to get up with Carson’s people and make sure we’re on the same page with our response…

            Will, chase down the full video of Vlech’s speech. I want to watch and review it…

            Charlie, see if you can get Jack Carson on the line and…

            Ainsley, the president will want to know about…

            Toby sidled over to Ainsley.  “You said you knew.”

“Come again?” Ainsley said.

“Right before the president called. You said you always knew Vlech wasn’t a

Ainsley drew in a clipped breath through her nose, then sighed, long and sad. “I knew what he represented to people who feel like America is leaving them behind. He knows how to talk to them. He knows how to speak the language of their fears. Working two jobs just to stay afloat doesn’t leave you with a lot of time to study the nuance of politics. And so he doesn’t give them nuance. He gives them grand promises. You know when you’re a kid and you skin your knee and your mom promises it’ll all be better soon? She doesn’t tell you about skin cells reforming and blood vessels repairing themselves. She tells you it’ll all be better soon. And she says it like she believes it. Vlech speaks like he believes the things he says. The fact that you didn’t see the threat coming means you have some ground to cover in understanding how to talk to the people he’s reaching.”

“We could never do it,” Sam said, from where he had been lurking behind them. “It would require us playing on the fear of others. We don’t speak that language.”

“There’s a way,” Toby said. “I don’t know what it is. But there’s a way.”

            Donna and Will hurried off to chase down their assignments. Ainsley started to leave but turned to Josh at the last minute. “Hey, what was it you needed?”

“What?” Josh looked bewildered.

“You called me to your office earlier, it’s the whole reason I happened to be with the group.”

“Oh, I was gonna pretend to have a conversation with you about something Republicany so the President wouldn’t make me watch the RNC with him.”

Ainsley opened her mouth to speak, but nothing came out. Eventually, she landed on, “You know.” She stopped, tilted her head, then said, “Let me just say.” She stopped again, trying to find her words. “For your information, Joshua, I was in the middle of annotating the latest amicus brief from the Solicitor General’s Office for POTUS, which, to you, may not sound very important, but I assure you that it was of the utmost importance, and, such as it is, not altogether outside the realm of something akin to fun for me, but let me take this moment to thank you for considering me for your pretend Republicany conversation in order to avoid spending time with the actual President of the United States.”

Josh’s eyebrows were about to hit the ceiling. “You’re welcome?”

Toby hid a laugh under a cough; Ainsley turned and calmly walked from the room.

Josh said, “Off to annotate her amicus brief in the Steam Pipe Trump Distribution Venue.”

“Trunk,” said CJ.

“What did I say?”

“You said Trump,” said Charlie.

Josh’s eyes narrowed. “I did? What’s a Trump?”

“Some sort of tool, isn’t it?” said Season Two Sam. “Dull edges, rarely useful.”

“It’s a brass instrument that makes a lot of unpleasant, loud noise,” Charlie said.

The room grew quiet in the wake of action, and eventually, Charlie stood and walked to the lunette window. Josh joined him, followed by CJ and Season Two Sam, and eventually, Toby. They stood in a line like that, in silence, looking out over the West Wing, thinking about the many seasons they’d spent working here. The future was daunting, to be sure, yet in that moment, they breathed in the words of their president, and the West Wing revealed itself to them as through a parted cloud, and they were left with a sense of history, a sense of good, a sense that things would be okay.

“I’m hungry,” said Toby.

“Me too,” said CJ.

Charlie stared out the window, “Where are we gonna find the finest muffins and bagels in all the land at this hour?”  

“That’s my thing,” said Josh. “You can’t… you know… take my thing.”

CJ nodded. “I could really go for a draft poured from the keg of victory right about now.”

“Keg of glory,” said Josh. “I drink from the keg of glory.”

“Oh, Josh?” They turned to find President Bartlet in his pajamas and robe with the presidential seal, standing in his doorway, a look of anticipation on his face. “What was that you just said?”

Josh looked like he’s just swallowed a bug. “Nothing, Mr. President.”

President Bartlet didn’t bite. He waved Josh over to a seat and picked up the remote. “Come on, Josh. Now that Vlech is done on his bully pulpit for one evening, we still have hours of RNC fun, talking heads dueling it out and bickering over who bloviated the best, and oh! Did I ever tell you about the high school paper I wrote on the 12th Century Treaty of Jaffa, which ended the Third Crusade?”

Toby, clearly enjoying himself, said, “Your paper ended the Third Crusade, sir?”

The smile on the President’s face slowly wore off as he looked in Toby’s direction. “You know, Toby. I think it’s just that sort of quick witted sarcasm we could use in the room tonight. Why don’t you join us?”

“Oh, sir, I don’t—”

“Come on in, Toby, it’ll be fun.”

Josh and Toby staggered across the room, heads hung low, the weight of doom on their shoulders. They quickly made eye contact, searching each other’s faces for some hint of an escape plan. Both came up empty.

As the more fortunate were leaving, Josh could be heard saying, “The keg of glory used to be a lot more fun.”

Grateful to be left off the chopping block, CJ, Charlie, and Season Two Sam walked back to their offices in the West Wing, talking the entire way. Mostly, they tried to figure out how, exactly, Sam had gotten himself stuck in Season Two, and if it was possible for them to do the same.

[cue sometimes-incongruously buoyant marching band music but which is consonant with the can-do spirit of optimism upon which this episode ends]


  1. I just got hooked on The West Wing a couple months ago, so this was perfect timing for me!
    “Where are we gonna find the finest muffins and bagels in all the land at this hour?” I'M DEAD.

    Ellie | On the Other Side of Reality