'West Wing' Watch: A guide for the discriminating viewer

For those who have been waiting on pins and needles, WWW World Headquarters has made its decision: We're bowing out, hitting the road, saying sayonara, bidding adieu, taking our leave...you get the idea. It was fun while at lasted, but we think we'll just return to enjoying the show, without going to ridiculous lengths to make fun of it each week. Thanks again to the Gaffe Squad. It was fun.

May 14

Great. We were hoping to kick back and just be snarky, and they go and hit us with a double whammy: a) a terrific, gripping episode, and b) homework-on the 25th Amendment, no less. All right, we'll give it a go-but remember, they had a whole staff of consultants (and probably lawyers) at their disposal, and we had a few minutes on Google. We're not pretending to be constitutional scholars.

We are, however, pleased to report they seem to have gotten the details right (down to forcing the House Speaker to resign from Congress before taking over as acting president-nice touch). But we don't understand the concern that the president might run around trying to issue orders at the same time his understudy is in charge. Because under the 25th Amendment, if the president declares himself incapacitated, all he has to do is undeclare himself and he's back in business.

While we're at it, wouldn't it make more sense for Bartlet to name a vice president (say, oh, maybe, Leo?) and demand that he be confirmed immediately in the interest of national security? (Sure, lots of members of Congress were heading out of town, but you can bet they'd turn around in this kind of crisis. You could get a quorum in a matter of hours.) Then Bartlet could do the whole 25th Amendment thing and not have to worry about putting the fate of the country in the hands of John Goodman.

We can't depart without one little gaffe note: The Navy's 5th Fleet is already headquartered in Bahrain, so "ordering them to the Gulf," as President Bartlet did, strikes us as unnecessary.

With that, another season comes to a close. Our enduring thanks, once again, to the Gaffe Squad, for keeping WW (and us, more times than we care to admit) on our toes.

And to all the people whose e-mails we weren't able to answer this year, here are the responses to some of our most frequently asked questions:

  • No, we don't think having a little fun with one TV show undermines the credibility of all that we do here at Government Executive and GovExec.com.
  • No, you shouldn't assume that because we like the show we endorse the Bartlet administration's ultraliberalism.
  • No, we don't think the political activities of Martin Sheen provide sufficient cause to stop critiquing a TV show.
As we indicated a couple of weeks ago, however, we are concerned about the departure of Aaron Sorkin. And our pledge to you is that we won't hang around just to mock this show if it becomes unwatchable-or worse, merely ordinary. So will we be back for the Sorkinless WW? Let's just leave that one as an end-of-season cliffhanger, shall we?

Reader feedback: Don't know how we missed this one, but luckily several members of the Gaffe Squad were all over it: When Bartlet is taking his little just-for-show roll call of the Cabinet on whether to temporarily bail out of the presidency, he calls on the "Secretary of Health and Education." Umm, no such department, Mr. President. Take your pick: Health and Human Services or Education.

The highly informed Don Kettl of the University of Wisconsin weighs in with this choice tidbit: "There is no Saw Mill River Nulcear Reactor in Richland, Wash., or anywhere else, for that matter. The Saw Mill River is in New York, in Westchester County. The target near Richland would have been the Department of Energy's Hanford facility, not in business but still full of a lot of nasty radioactive junk. There's a Savannah River nuclear facility, but that's in South Carolina."

Ariel Glasner of New York City reports that Leo's assertion that the two sons of Eritrea's prime minister were kidnapped by one of the suspects in Zoe's disappearance is unlikely to be true-because Eritrea doesn't have a prime minister. In Eritrea, the president acts as both the chief of state and head of government, similar to the United States' chief executive.

May 7

We're sorry: Did someone slip us some ecstasy? Because our head is swimming. Maybe it was just the relentless techno rave music in the last 15 minutes of the episode playing tricks with our brain. But it got so bad that we actually hallucinated that NBC was relentlessly flogging a made-for-TV movie called "The Unauthorized Story of Three's Company" during commercial breaks. Weird, huh?

A lot of gripping drama in this episode, but a fair number of bewildering moments and silly gaffes, too. And by now you know that's straight where we're headed, don't you?

Let's start with the "Oh, for God's sake" section of the show, in which poor beleaguered Donna is forced to explain the Elements of Josh to Amy the Daft Self-Obsessive. Four beers into the lesson, it dawns on Amy that maybe Josh and Donna have, like, a little thing for each other. Do you think?

At least Amy is now a regular, meaning that rather than having whole plot lines built around her, she merely gets to look foolish in five-minute segments every few weeks. Sort of like the First Lady, who appears to have graduated with honors from the Hillary Clinton School of Ever-Changing Haircuts. The Liz Taylor-esque 'do she sported tonight was among her more frightening looks.

Speaking of women, does Aaron Sorkin know any? And have any of them had children? Because maybe they could've told him that it's pretty unlikely Andi would go into labor and get dilated a full 10 centimeters without any discernible discomfort. (And by the way, before you start feeling all sorry for the freshly dumped Toby, consider two things: 1. Andi's right about his corrosive moroseness, and 2. All of this is just a setup for them to get back together next week anyway.)

Also, what's Sorkin's beef with Secret Service agents? He keeps getting them killed with dopey stuff like bungling convenience store robberies and losing track of the president's daughter in a bar-partly because the agent in charge is shooting the breeze with the deputy chief of staff out in the alley.

Finally, a continuing quibble: Just when we thought they were paying attention to WW Watch, they start up again with the "Threat Condition Bravo" thing. For goodness's sake, stop patting yourselves on the back for knowing that "THREATCON" replaced "DEFCON" awhile back, and wake up to what we've told you before: THREATCON itself has been dead for almost two years, having given way to "FPCON," for "force protection condition." (Hey, we don't make up the acronyms, we just report on 'em.)

April 30

We admit it: We were starting to lose hope. But last week wasn't just a fluke. Just in time for the May sweeps, they're back. Goodbye, Vice President Loser! (Deep down, we all knew they had to get rid of him one way or another, didn't we?) Hello, Joe Quincy! (The male Ainsley, right down to the office in the "steam pipe trunk distribution venue").

Sure, they're recycling jokes and plotlines. But they're the good jokes and plotlines, so who cares?

And they're keeping the zingers coming. We're talking Toby yelling at Will, "Don't come in here with half a thing!" And Will deadpanning back, "Either get Andi to marry you or kill yourself." And C.J. calling Joe "Boo-Boo." Simply sublime. Of course, maybe we're just in a good mood because it appears the writers have been listening to the Gaffe Squad once again. We're speaking of the opening sequence, where Bartlet gently informs the vice president's flunky that her boss's letter of resignation actually needs to be directed to the Secretary of State. A Gaffe Squadder made this very point last year in an episode involving Bartlet's own empty threat to resign over being forced to hide in a bunker.

We're sure we can speak for the Gaffe Squad in saying thanks for listening. But we'll also note that the veep's own legal advisers certainly would've told him to send the letter over to Foggy Bottom. And Hoynes probably would've sent a different letter to Bartlet anyway, just to let him know he was making it official. That's what Spiro Agnew did.

While we're being all picky, we'll just note that even if you're delivering the vice president's resignation, you can't just pull up in a cab to the front door of the White House. And we're not aware of any "Dolley Madison staircase" in the White House, either, regardless of what C.J. told GOP Joe.

NEWS UPDATE: West Wing executive producer Aaron Sorkin announced May 1 that he would leave the show at the end of this season, according to the Associated Press. Anybody obsessive enough to look at this column probably already knows this, but Sorkin has been the driving creative force behind WW since its launch three years ago, writing most of the shows himself. We've taken our shots at him and his creation from time to time, but by any reasonable estimation, this is sad and troubling news for the future of the show.

Reader feedback: Relative to the coverup of life on Mars subplot, Dave Draper says, "I worked at NASA Johnson Space Center for several years until last July, down the hall from the group whose 1996 paper on Martian meteorite ALH84001 re-started the whole 'life on Mars' scientific debate, and I work on other Martian meteorites myself (but not on the life angle). I can assure you that scientific results bearing on whether there is water or life in meteorites (or anything else for that matter) do not go to NASA advisory committees before going in to refereed journals, such that they could be classified or embargoed by the White House, DoD, or anyone else. Advisory committes of the type referenced in the episode would be far down the line for such stuff."

April 23

Honesty is the best policy, right? So kudos to President Bartlet for realizing the Cold War is over and coming clean with the Russian president about the purpose of the Predator. And jeers to Charlie for trying to play like he wasn't dating around (apparently he's been straying as far as Charlottesville and Baltimore, if Zoe's sources are right). Charlie, Charlie, Charlie. We're rooting for you, but it's time to find a nice girl from AU and let Zoe go off with her French boyfriend. Oops. We mean her Freedom boyfriend.

And speaking of honesty, is Josh really going to let Matthew Perry, a.k.a. Joe Quincy, get away with his transgression on the SF-86? We admit we're not big Matthew Perry fans (is Friends really still on the air?), but we'd like a little more straight talk express from Matthew than waiting until AFTER an exhaustive interview to let it be known he's from the other party. Honestly, there were some plot lines we were rolling our eyes at. Gambling in the White House? Meteors mistaken for North Korean missiles? Late-night food from Krupin's? (Get some chili dogs from Ben's, people!) But we believed the plot line about the White House "crashing" after the crazed shooter fired off some shots, especially with the connect-the-dots episodes in Kuala Lampur and Germany. And we don't care what the Web sites say. Eggs stand up on the vernal equinox. Honestly. Reader feedback: The Gaffe Squad sounded multiple alarms about the Predator story line. Several readers pointed out that it was ridiculous for Leo to say that the Predator, an unmanned aerial vehicle, was taking satellite pictures. As a National Imagery and Mapping Agency employee put it: "Satellites take satellite pictures. A UAV can't take a 'satellite' picture any more than a satellite can take a UAV picture." Several readers also noted that UAVs transmit pictures in real-time via satellite, so there would be no need to recover the vehicle to get the pictures. One anonymous but well-placed source says, "There would be no point in the data being held in the plane because that would defeat the purpose of an unmanned data-gathering platform." So go ahead and hit that self-destruct button, Josiah. Another anonymous source tells us there is no question No. 75 on the SF-86, as Matthew "Liar" Perry suggested. So we checked and didn't see one either. Gaffe Squad members also said:

  • Josh, as a federal official, should have avoided the EEO-alarm-causing talk at the beginning of the job interview with Joe Quincy.
  • Cheyenne Mountain is in Colorado, not Wyoming.
  • Trident subs on the East Coast call Georgia, not Connecticut, home.
  • There is no job for a first lieutenant in an Air Force judge advocate's office, which is usually referred to as the "legal office," not the JAG.
  • Charlie and Mrs. Fiderer shouldn't have been able to burst into the Oval Office in a situation like that.
The Gaffe Squad was also completely obsessed with the egg story line and sent in numerous Web links. If you're obsessed too, go here, here and here.

And finally, Ruth says: "Love the West Wing Watch. I can't wait to read it after watching the show the previous day. Thanks for brightening up my Thursday mornings."

Ruth, Thanks for brightening our Thursday afternoon.

John D. Brooks, an administrative officer in the Socorro, N.M., field office of the Bureau of Land Management, begs to differ about jobs for Air Force lawyers. "Law school students who aspire to a military commission in the USAF Legal Department upon graduation and who do not have any creditable military service are directly commissioned into the Air Force as first lieutenants upon completion of their legal studies and after passing a state bar exam," he writes. "I spent 20 years on active duty in the 'JAG.' I know these things."

April 2

Here's a theory: The longer the Bartlet Bunch are in power, the dumber they get. Tonight's episode featured the usual small head-scratchers (Josh hunkering down for a little bill-writing session in the White House with a GOP member of Congress, Charlie quaffing a beer while on duty) and one massive whopper.

We're referring, of course, to C.J.'s inexplicable decision to handle a potential problem with the landing gear on Air Force One by telling the press corps a big fat lie about it. Since this whole media thing is an area we know a little something about, allow us to provide a real big reality check: This kind of stunt would not merely be damaging, or cause a problem with the more touchy reporters. It would absolutely destroy the credibility of the press secretary in a way she could never recover from.

Here are some of the reasons why, which are so obvious that we feel silly having to mention them:

  • Even under C.J.'s own brilliant plan, the reporters will eventually find out she has a policy of lying. That falls under the Kiss of Death category.
  • The fib about a fuel spill on the runway was ludicrously flawed. Andrews Air Force Base has more than one runway, and presumably at some point someone would ask why they weren't simply diverting the plane to some other base or airport.
  • Telling the truth would not only have been easier, but more effective. Believe it or not, the elite members of the White House press corps are not such ogres that they can't be reasoned with. So tell them what's really happening and explain why it would be very damaging for them to report the story immediately. If pleading for fairness doesn't work, you can still cut off their phones.
All of this is why we thought, "Aha! This plot, on which the whole episode hinges, is a mere setup for C.J. to get her comeuppance in the end. Brilliant!" So imagine our slack-jawed amazement when those sorry lapdogs in the press corps actually thanked C.J. for her clumsy prevarication plan.

Aaron Sorkin ought to put some former White House spokesperson on the payroll to guard against this kind of silliness in the future. Oops, we forgot, he already has one: Dee Dee Myers. Guess now we know why her stint as a real-life White House press secretary was so short. Reader feedback: Nice to see the Gaffe Squad kick back into action quickly after a relatively slow week last week. A few aviation experts weighed in within minutes after the episode ended to note that there's no "Runway 39" at Andrews, nor anywhere else for that matter. Runways are designated by their direction on the compass, with the last digit dropped off if necessary. So 36 is the highest possible number. For the record, Andrews has two parallel runways, which are designated as 1L-19R and 1R-19L.

In further aviation gaffes, the fighter that appeared outside Air Force One's windows was not an F-16, as announced, but an F-15. (And by the way, notes reader Mike Gibson, even if it had been an F-16 it shouldn't have been called a "strike fighter.") Perhaps the biggest error of all, though involved the landing gear subplot: The 747 that ordinarily serves as Air Force One is one is equipped with a system that enables to crew to see whether or not the landing gear has come down, rather than simply relying on an indicator light in the cockpit.

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