The West Wing 25 Years Later: Still The Most Realistic Portrayal of DC on Television I’ve Seen

David B Morris
16 min readApr 16, 2024

Part 1: How Recent DC Shows Imagine The Vice Presidency -And How Aaron Sorkin’s Portrayal Is Still The Most Accurate One

As I’ve written on multiple occasions, mostly in historical and political commentary, I still believe The West Wing is not, for all the arguments of today’s critics and cynics, a world of DC for idealists.

The more I think about The West Wing it is by far still the most realistic portrayal of the government on TV I’ve seen in the last quarter of a century. I acknowledge its optimism but that doesn’t mean it’s not realistic.

For all the arguments of Sorkin’s liberal ideology, the fact remains that while the Bartlet administration was fictional, the America he set it in was the one anyone in 1999 could recognize. There were countless historical references to make this clear. Jed Bartlett was the first Democrat to become President in eight years, probably longer. Over the previous thirty years four of the previous Presidents were Republicans and in 1999 that was the truth. Bartlet was a minority president — he had been elected with forty-eight percent of the popular vote and more people had voted against him than for him. This was true in the 1996 election. The implication was there was a third party candidate who siphoned votes away from the Republican, which had happened in 1992. And Bartlet had been elected President but both houses of Congress were Republican. This was true not only of Clinton in 1996 but had been a way of life for most Presidents in the last thirty years of the twentieth century. Nixon, Ford and George H.W. Bush had never had either House of Congress under Republican Control and Ronald Reagan had never had a Republican House and controlled the Senate for six of his eight years in office. Americans were, if anything, more used to a divided government than then they are today.

I mention all of this information not only as a basis for future articles, but because in every other drama set in DC in the last decade, we never learned much about the makeup of Congress, previous Presidential elections or really anything about how government worked. Shows like House of Cards and Scandal might claim to be set in contemporary DC, but they had so little interest in politics or even governing that for all intents and purposes they might as well have been set in Westeros. Indeed Game of Thrones is a far better analogy to either of these shows then The West Wing ever was and it may explain their popularity among so many people.

There has been an argument made over the last few years that The West Wing was an idealistic version of DC and shows like Scandal and House of Cards were how DC really worked. That argument never held water with me because neither of those shows were about governing and politics the way The West Wing was. Indeed, for all the stories about Scandal revealing the secrets behind the corridors of power, at its heart the show was about sex (like all Shonda Rhimes shows) and power. The show never cared about Fitzgerald Grant’s legislative agenda and indeed Olivia Pope was always there to put out fires that could ‘bring down the republic’. Olivia was never asked to use her influence to get legislation through Congress and while the Grant administration occasionally got involved in foreign affairs, it never really did anything with the Cabinet at all. We were told that making Fitzgerald Grant President was the best thing for the country but the Grant administration never had any record to run on or campaign on and at the end of the day, he was an adulterer whose marriage was a lie and was capable of murder. Really the only qualification Grant had to be President was that he was good enough for Olivia Pope to have sex with.

In Olivia Pope’s world, being great in bed means you deserve to be leader of the free world.

(That’s the great feminist message of Scandal by the way. A woman can be important enough for the President to have as his mistress and bring down the country but he’s still not good enough for her to have a happy life with. Forgive me, gladiators, if I’ve brought down your heroine.)

Similarly I don’t think, even had it not been for the controversy that led to the firing of Kevin Spacey that House of Cards could have ended well. Even by the third season (which is when I stopped watching it) the show was starting to become a slog. And that may have been inevitable. It was fun to watch Frank Underwood walk through the corridors of power, manipulate and betray everyone around him, all so that he could become President. But once he was President, he actually had to build a record to run for election in his own right. Part of this was that the pursuit of a goal is always for fun then achieving it but its also the fact that once Underwood became President, all of the tools that made him good behind the scenes didn’t work nearly as well when he was front row center. It might have been fun if Underwood killed legislators to get a budget bill through Congress, but the show didn’t want to go that far.

The West Wing was a realistic show because Sorkin made sure that it was about governing as much as it was politics. Elections were important, to be sure, but Sorkin made sure the crises the Bartlett administration dealt with were not sensationalized. House of Cards and Scandal were about nothing but sensationalizing. I think the best way to illustrate this and begin this series is to talk about how all three shows chose to deal with the Vice Presidency.

I need to start this article by bringing up the other quasi-political drama of the era: 24. The Presidency was not talked about in quite the same way as the other three but because so much of the drama involved both the President and because the model for how the Vice President was viewed may have influenced the latter shows, I feel its merits discussion.

After Day 2 when David Palmer (Dennis Haysbert) was elected President, the Vice President was a critical role in the next five seasons. Most of the time this had to do with an aspect of the 25th Amendment we are now all too familiar with but which 24 and The West Wing first put in the public consciousness. There is a clause that if a majority of the cabinet thinks the President is incapable of doing his duties, he will be removed from office and the Vice President becomes acting President. 24 went to this well quite a bit during its run and the first time came near the end of Day 2.

An atomic bomb has been detonated on American soil and it is believed three unnamed Middle East countries are responsible. President Palmer believes he has no choice but to declare war but Jack Bauer has reason to believe the evidence is faulty. Palmer is wavering on the decision and has decided to call of the attack. His Vice President (Alan Dale) doubts his competency and begins to assemble the Cabinet to remove him from office. It comes to a vote; Palmer is removed and the Vice President is sworn in. We never get a clear idea of their working relationship but it is telling that when the President is proven right the Vice President offers to resign — and Palmer does not accept it. “We have a nation to heal,” he tells the Vice President. Palmer’s Vice President appears again in Day 3 and it’s clear their relationship has improved.

This exact scenario plays out again in Day 6 under different circumstances. Wayne Palmer (DB Woodside) is render unconscious under an attack and his Vice President Noah Daniels (Powers Boothe) becomes President. The head of Homeland Security has doubts over an impending on the Middle East and Palmer is revived. Daniels demands the cabinet vote to challenge Palmer’s competency. This time a majority does not vote against Palmer being reinstated but because of an argument over one of the members there’s the possible of a conflict. The President’s Chief of Staff (Peter MacNicol) says they should involve the Court. Daniels wants to find a way around this and his adviser (and lover) agrees to lie under oath. The Chief of Staff learns about this, gets a recording and the Vice President has no choice but to withdraw his claim.

I should mention that in both cases later in the day, the President is incapacitated on a more long-term basis and the President must take over the White House again. The same is not true of the last time this was used in Day 5

(Here I will try to avoid direct spoilers because in this case, the revelations affect the plot and because I don’t want to ruin anyone’s enjoyment of Day 5 — the best season the show ever did — I’ll speak vaguely)

By the time he showed up, we suspected a Vice President could do anything on 24.

President Charles Logan (Gregory Itzin) is in the midst of a major crisis involving terrorists who posses nerve gas. While trying to deal with it his Vice President Harold Gardener (Ray Wise) appears and says that he wants to help handle. At this point Logan seems to be a weak personality and Gardener the stronger one. Logan’s own wife and his chief of staff both believe Gardener has an ulterior motive and that might be replacing him for President in a year.

As the day progresses, its seems that there might be someone within DC who is responsible for the attacks. CTU believes that Gardener might be that person. The reason we do is not just because of the actor (a critic later said that with Wise’s work on 24 “you could smell sulfur”) but because by this time we have come to expect that all Vice Presidents are waiting to snatch power away from the President.

It is this model that we would see in both Scandal and House of Cards over the last decade. I’ll start with Scandal because that show debuted first.

Throughout Scandal the Vice Presidency always seemed to exist for the sole purpose of snatching power away from the President. That was one of the major themes that the show went to so many times: no one bothers to wait their turn in line, given the opportunity the wolves will sneak in and snatch it. But Scandal took this to a ludicrous extreme.

Grant and his first Vice President, Sally Langston (Kate Burton) Both were Republicans but Langston was far more conservative then him and Grant had defeated her for the Republican nomination the year before. The President’s Chief of Staff Cyrus Beene (Jeff Perry) hated everybody but especially her. He wanted power more than her. So much so that when Grant was shot at and in a coma and Langston, who was entitled to take power by the 25th Amendment, Cyrus told her she had no business being President and seemed willing to let a Constitutional crisis unfold then let her be President even for a few days. He then hired Olivia to make it seem the President would be conscious to undercut the living President. This in itself is very close to treason but on Scandal, treason only counted if the opposition did it. Grant had to be forced out of his hospital bed barely able to talk because Cyrus and Olivia had forced it.

Later on Sally Langston left the Vice Presidency to run as an independent, partly out of disgust with the administration, mainly because Cyrus refused to let anyone else share power. He spend much of Season 3 trying to get his husband to seduce hers to create a scandal making her politically toxic, something he felt no remorse for even when it ended with her husband dead.

Needing a replacement for reelection, Grant turned to his old friend and the current Governor of California Andrew Nichols (Jon Tenney). Immediately after Nichols was sworn in, he began manipulating events first to start a war and then to arrange for Olivia’s kidnapping to essentially force a coup. He was then drugged to make it look like he’d suffered a stroke, but he regained consciousness only for Olivia Pope to bash him to death with a chair. This led to the Grant administration for a third Vice President, someone harmless who wouldn’t get in the way of Mellie Grant running for President in her own right in the next election. (I’d say that’s the most absurd storyline yet on the show but that doesn’t come close.)

Meanwhile B613 was trying to manipulating the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination to take Jake Ballard (Scott Foley) in a position so that he could be Vice President and then he and Rowan Pope could run the country together. (By this point Rowan Pope had been doing it behind the scenes for years, so you wonder why bother but there was never logic) At the end of the season, when he was being held captive, Olivia arranged for his rescue — so he could run as Mellie’s Vice President.

At this point we’ve gone into such absurdities that by the final season when Cyrus Beene, who had been the Democratic Vice Presidential candidate became the real one under Mellie Grant (who’d lost the election but somehow became President; no explanation would pass muster) that it was a matter of time before he began manipulating things so he could become President. I know what John Nance Garner thought the Vice Presidency was worth, but in the world of Scandal apparently the question no one asks before they pick them is, if I’m elected do you promise not to plot a coup?

By these standards House of Cards seems less absurd, and at least it started in a more realistic place. During Season 1, Frank Underwood was trying to use Peter Russo to run for Governor of Pennsylvania in an off-year election. The Vice President was the previous governor and they needed to fill his slot. Underwood spent much of Season 1 planning to undermine Russo so that he could persuade the Vice President to resign and run for his old seat.

Unrealistic as that sounded, it had some basis in reality as the show pointed out: Aaron Burr did so to run for Governor of New York, and John C. Calhoun for the Senate. Underwood had done so in order for him to be named Vice President but that was part of the plan. Similarly while Underwood had his eyes set on becoming President himself, House of Cards did not show its hand immediately. Underwood spent all of Season 2 secretly working to undermine President Walker, and eventually managed to manipulate things so that he would be impeached. Even then, the show made it clear that events might turn against him. Walker knew what was being done and was working to manipulate him. Only a last-ditch ploy managed to save Underwood, position Walker to resign and put Underwood in the Presidency.

The problems started in Season 3 when Underwood began to run for election in his own right. They handled it well initially. Underwood spend much of Season 3 trying to use Jackie Sharp (Molly Parker) to run as a stalking horse in the Democratic primary. Underwood promised her the Vice Presidency if she did. However Sharp saw past the manipulations of Underwood and chose to end her candidacy before the primaries began. There were problems with Season 3; these weren’t one.

Apparently being married to the President wasn’t a disqualifier to be his running mate.

The larger problem came when the show decided that Frank Underwood’s running mate would be…Claire Underwood. In my mind, this was where the show jumped the shark. Mellie Grant was as ambitious as her husband, but not even Shonda Rhimes was willing to make her try to become President in as bald a way as this: she ran for Senator from Virginia and she had to campaign in the primaries to win the nomination in her own right. When your show is being less realistic than Scandal, it should have been time to take a look in the mirror but from what I understand House of Cards doubled and tripled down from that point on. I’m all in favor of female Presidents on TV but this was ludicrous.

Now that I’ve spent all this time arguing what Vice Presidents shouldn’t be, I’ll deal with how The West Wing demonstrated what a Vice President is. Because one of the things the show got right was how they illustrated the Vice President John Hoynes, played exquisitely by Tim Matheson in a role that earned him two Emmy nominations.

We would learn in Season 2 that John Hoynes had been the Senator from Texas and the front-runner for the Democratic nomination in 1998. Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford) had been his chief adviser and was incredibly frustrated by him. “You’re the front-runner for the Democratic nomination,” he tells Hoynes, “and I don’t know what were for. Except we seem to be for winning and against someone else winning.” Hoynes tries to put Josh at ease. Leo McGarry (John Spencer) manages to convince Josh to see Jed Bartlett, then governor of New Hampshire and running in single digits, campaign in Nashua. Josh tells him Hoynes is going to be the nominee. Leo convinces him to come — and Josh ends up signing on for Bartlet, and essentially putting together the plan that puts Bartlet in the White House. We later learn that Josh put Hoynes on the ticket for political purposes: they needed him to deliver the South and apparently he did that. But Hoynes has been resentful ever since.

Tim Matheson as John Hoynes.

Hoynes is ambitious but unlike his followers in the decades to come, he is a realist and knows his success is tied to Bartlet’s. While he does occasionally want to step out of line, he doesn’t overreach. In the Season 2 opening after Bartlet has been shot and under anesthesia, there is a meeting of the Joint Chiefs. Hoynes is acting President but he sits in the same seat he’s always sat in. Leo, whose present, has to remind everyone to stand when Hoynes enters the room but Hoynes doesn’t fuss over it and quickly tells everyone to settle down. Hoynes doesn’t try to overreach and he is willing to go along with Leo.

Near the end of the second season Hoynes begins to make moves that seem to be running for President. No one realizes at the time that he is doing so because Bartlet has promised his wife that because of his MS, he was only going to serve one term. 15 people know Leo is one and Hoynes is the other. He was told of the President’s condition immediately after taking the Vice Presidency (something he knew before Leo did) When Toby realizes this (in the brilliant ’17 People’) Bartlet is enraged but he has to bury it.

In Season 3, as the campaign becomes more pronounced Bartlet and Hoynes have an argument in the Oval Office. “You outed me, John,” he says, blaming him for leaving bread crumbs. Hoynes is angry, but for a different reason: “I had to start running because no one told me I wasn’t.”

This is the critical difference between Hoynes and his successors. Hoynes wants to be President but because of the distance between him and the President, he is frequently left out of the loop. The West Wing makes it clear on multiple occasions how difficult the relationship between the two is but in Hoynes’ case, there is frustration and that is frequently held because of Leo. But Bartlet does respect Hoynes and he clearly wants him to be President. Even in the midst of this conflict, he tells Hoynes: “It’s not easy being my Vice President, is it?”

This is made clear in one of the best episodes in the series run: ‘Stirred’. Josh has held a campaign meeting with the strategists and he meets with the White House inner circle to tell them that there’s no electoral math that doesn’t make it work talking about dropping Hoynes from the ticket. Toby in particular is stunned because the word has been “if the President is elected, it will be on the Vice President’s coattails.” Josh points out that the Republican candidate for President Robert Ritchie of Florida is the kind of candidate that will make sure that the Dems lose Texas and Florida in November. The conversation that follows also considers the possibility that Hoynes, if dropped from the ticket, will run as a third-party candidate. When Josh points out if he does this his career will be over, CJ reminds him the same will be true if he is dropped from the ticket.

Hoynes does hear about this and he is surprisingly mellow about it. This comes at a time when he is becoming frustrated about his job. At one point he quotes Daniel Webster when he was offered the Vice Presidency: “I do not propose to be buried before I am dead.” But he knows how the electoral math is going and that Bartlet may lose in November. But Bartlet stands by his vice President. He writes down his reason for sticking with Hoynes on a piece of paper and shows it to Leo and Hoynes. At the end of the episode Leo reveals it: “Because I could die.” There has rarely been a more full-throated defense of a fictional president of their vice president since.

(It is worth noting that, near the end of Season 4, Hoynes is involved in an extramarital affair and resigns from the Vice Presidency. However because much of that deals with The West Wing in the post-Sorkin era, I will let it go for the purpose of this article.)

The role of the Vice Presidency is usually an afterthought for most Presidential candidates. It should be discussed more seriously and in this year’s election I have little doubt it will be more prominent then most of them. Our perception of the Vice Presidency definitely needs to change. The West Wing by far has the most realistic idea of what a Vice President really is rather than what other shows seem to picture them. Hoynes’ relationship with Bartlet was complicated but he understood his place. He was never the kind of VP we saw on later shows where the only time they patted you on the back was because they were looking for where to stick the knife.

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David B Morris

After years of laboring for love in my blog on TV, I have decided to expand my horizons by blogging about my great love to a new and hopefully wider field.