'West Wing' Watch 2001-2002 Season

Dave Braa points out that Bartlet's threat to deliver a letter of resignation to the chief justice of the Supreme Court if he is forced to hide in a bunker during the terrorist crisis is misdirected. Such letters must be addressed to the Secretary of State, according to the . But the rest of Bartlet's scenario, involving Vice President Hoynes assuming office and then appointing Bartlet vice president, is at least theoretically possible under the . University of Wisconsin Law School Professor R. Alta Charo pointed out that our catch about the Metro section was wrong (and that we need to read more newspapers). Charo wrote: "Since it was the Secretary's goal to become governor of New Jersey, I had assumed they were talking about the Metro section of the , not the , as it is the New Jersey voters he is trying to reach, not the Beltway intelligentsia. "Of course, the Metro section isn't in Section A in the local edition, but in the national edition, which is the one that folks in DC would be reading, it is! And A17 is about right for how far back NY regional news appears in the national edition (today, e.g., it began on page A19)." We stand corrected. The most detailed reader feedback this week came from people who know a thing or two about nuclear waste. Since we don't know anything about nuclear waste, we're going to let them speak for themselves. Drew Grainger, an environmental scientist at the Energy Department's Savannah River Office, says the writers clearly did their homework for the nuclear spill script, although he had one minor correction. Here's Grainger's review: As several readers have astutely noted, it would be highly unlikely that the United States would trade highly prized F-117 stealth technology for basing rights in a small Middle Eastern country. In the real world, the press secretary would probably just have said they were not naming the victims "pending notification of next of kin."
July 25

Special Midsummer Update

You knew we wouldn't make it all the way until the fall, didn't you?

Sad news for West Wing Watchers today, with the stunning revelation that Rob Lowe and his Sam Seaborn character will exit the show in March. The issue, not surprisingly, appears to be money. Lowe, E! Online reports, is the only West Winger who hasn't gotten a pay increase since the show's first season-not even a within-grade or a locality differential. (Apparently $75,000 per episode doesn't pay the bills in the Lowe household.) To make matters worse, when the Emmy nominations came out last week, nine other actors on the show were nominated in various categories, while Lowe came up empty-handed. Ouch.

Lowe, avid WW Watchers will remember, was originally conceived as the star of the show. That sure has changed. "As much as it hurts to admit it, it has been increasingly clear, for quite a while, that there was no longer a place for Sam Seaborn on The West Wing," Lowe said in a statement. Unfortunately, as we noted several times last season (see May 8, Jan. 30, Jan. 16, etc.) he's right. Aaron Sorkin must've had some inkling Lowe wouldn't be around, because Sam's character withered on the vine throughout the latter half of the season. Which is a damn shame, because our little idealistic Sam was, in many ways, the conscience of the show, and spent more time than most of the other characters dealing with real government people addressing real issues.

But here's what's really scary: There's an opening on the White House staff, and Amy needs a job.

May 22

OK, now we're feeling bad that we badmouthed Simon and Amy last week. Sure, they were annoying, but we didn't know they were going to kill him off and throw her on the unemployment line. By the way, since when are interest-group honchos forced to resign over one lousy vote?

While we're at it, whatever happened to National Security Advisor Nancy McNally? You'd think she might be invited into the meetings about how to assassinate a foreign terrorist.

But all in all, the season ended on a high note. You had to love Gov. Ritchie's witless "Crime, boy … I don't know" response to Bartlet's news that Simon had been gunned down trying to thwart a robbery. And the president's throw-down-the-gauntlet retort to the GOP nominee-in-waiting was even better: "In the future, if you're wondering, 'Crime, boy … I don't know' is when I decided to kick your ass."

Well, that's it for this year. It was fun, wasn't it? We'll be back next fall, pencil sharpened, notebook in hand, our jaundiced eye aimed at what we nevertheless acknowledge without equivocation is the best damn show on television.

A special thanks to all those who have shared their observations of errors on the show this year. The accumulated knowledge of federal employees and observers of government operations is an amazing--and, let's be honest, at times a little frightening--thing.

Have a great summer.

Reader feedback: "No offense to the late Simon," writes Greg M. Weinman, legal counsel for the U.S. Mint, "but what kind of federal agent, after detaining one suspect in a robbery, not only fails to scan the scene for additional suspects, especially when the store clerk is noticeably unrelieved, but is so nonchalant in his recklessness that he cracks jokes about his craving for a Milky Way bar? I imagine the folks at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Glynco, Ga., were less than impressed with how an agent was portrayed in last night's episode."

Several other readers have wondered why in the world Simon wasn't wearing a bulletproof vest, since he was on the job guarding C.J. that night.

And Kurt Raschke of Towson, Md., offers the following observation: "In last night's episode, Leo referred to the assassination of the foreign defense minister as being prohibited by Executive Order 11905. To the writers' credit, this is a real E.O., and it does prohibit assassination, among other things. However, that E.O. was superseded by EO 12036, signed on Jan. 24, 1978, which also contains the prohibition on assassination. The paper trail, though, does not end there. E.O. 12036 was revoked by E.O. 12333, and E.O. 12333 does contain a prohibition on assassination in section 2.11. So, what does this mean in summary? E.O. 11905 is no longer valid, and Leo should have known that." If you don't think that's impressive, you should know that Kurt is a 9th grader at Towson High School. Kurt, we urge you to go into public service. Your country needs you.

May 15

Not to start the roundup on a sour note or anything, but this week's episode raised one major question in our minds: Which is more annoying, the not-so-witty repartee between C.J. and Simon the Secret Service Hunk, or the prattling banter between Josh and Amy the Shrill Ultrafeminist? It's a close call, but we give C.J. and Simon the nod. By the way, while it stretches credulity to think these two would consider making out while he's supposed to be on the job, it's simply ridiculous that they'd do it less than half a block away from the agent who's supposed to relieve Simon. And as for civilians being allowed to blast away with .357 Magnums on the Secret Service firing range--we think not.

On the other hand, we were pleased to see Donna parlay her upper midwestern heritage into a nice little diplomatic mission to North Dakota. But if you're thinking that bit about some of the state's residents wanting to drop the "North" is phony, you're wrong. Moves to change the state's official name were defeated in the state legislature in 1947 and 1989, but the effort popped up again last year. Apparently there's a concern among some citizens of the Peace Garden State that "north" simply means "cold and flat."

The debate over marriage incentives in the welfare reform process is also very real, as we reported back in March.

It was nice to see what we think was the first reference to one of our favorite agencies, the Office of Personnel Management, in the history of WW. We'll overlook the fact that Charlie referred to it as "the OPM," when in real life it's just plain "OPM."

Reader feedback: Pat Flynn of the Coast Guard Training Center in Yorktown, Va., points out that Leo passed on an age-old urban legend in saying that the United States spent millions to develop a pen to work in space, while the Russians simply used pencils. In truth, the government spent nothing on the space pen--it was developed privately and sold to both the Russians and NASA. Read more about it at the Urban Legends Reference Pages, a wonderful source for exposing tall tales.

A couple of Navy types have noted that Adm. Fitzwallace, the Joint Chiefs chairman, would never say he had been a soldier for 38 years, but would call himself what he is--a sailor.

May 8

One small but significant error and a few quirks this week:

  • We hope the Army didn't dispatch troops east on U.S. 50 to fortify Fort Myer after it was identified as a possible terrorist target, since Fort Myer is in Virginia, not Maryland, as Leo said.
  • We were pleased to see a TV network news director stick it to Toby for getting all self-righteous about the lack of network coverage of today's ridiculously scripted political conventions. And Toby's threat to order up a Justice Department antitrust investigation if the networks failed to do what the White House wanted was absurd. Trust us, the story in The Washington Post the day after this kind of stunt would not be "Networks To Air Full Conventions;" it would be "Bartlet to Networks: Cover Me or Go to Jail."
  • Donna deserves a pat on the back for pushing the value of public service-even the service of interns who take re-gifted Finnish moose meat and try to sell it on eBay. She correctly noted that only a third of Harvard University's public policy graduates take public sector jobs these days. Maybe she read about it on GovExec.com last year.
  • Finally, we must pause to lament Sam's long, slow decline into irrelevancy. It started with relegating him to trivial subplots. Now he gets more screen time, but only to show that he's a bumbling moron. This week, Sam is expressly told-for obvious reasons-not to call his buddy in the opposing campaign about a mysterious attack ad. Then he meets with his pal anyway-and is actually surprised when he gets burned. This is the guy who Bartlet said was going to run for president someday? Not unless he develops some political instincts.
Reader feedback:National Archives and Records Administration25th Amendment

Tom Langenfeld, a retired Army intelligence officer, says it was a little odd to see the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff offer detailed intelligence reports about the terrorist threat, when that task would almost certainly fall to the director of central intelligence, or--since it was a domestic threat--the attorney general or the FBI director.

Also on the military front, several people have reminded us that the last thing the Navy would do in the event of a threat to its ships would be to move them into port. Remember Pearl Harbor?

An anonymous reader points out that in addition to Sam's political naivete, he apparently hasn't heard anything about anthrax threats, because at the beginning of the show he blithely opens a large sealed brown manila envelope with no return address that is marked "personal."

Many Washington shoppers have noted that C.J. and her niece must've hopped a shuttle to New York to go for their lunch-hour shopping trip to Barney's--there are no Barney's stores in Washington.

May 1

Finally, a new original episode-and a damn good one, featuring a fine cameo at the end by a veteran TV actor. No, we're not talking about Mark Harmon as C.J.'s personal Secret Service agent. (What, have they run out of ludicrously handsome doctor roles on TV?) We're talking about the brilliant and talented Peter Scolari as the head of high-tech firm Anteris. (OK, we'll admit we're biased by the fact that this gifted actor from "Bosom Buddies," "Newhart," and the TV version of "Honey I Shrunk the Kids" is, in real life, related to a key GovExec.com staffer. How's that for one degree of separation?)

Nevertheless, we have a little problem with the Anteris subplot-a teensy-weensy production error forced them to recall every computer chip in the universe-and President Bartlet's solution to it: telling Anteris that they could keep their federal contracts. While we have great faith in the strength and stability of the federal government as a market for high-tech goods-after all, we depend on the advertising of the companies who serve it to pay our bills-it doesn't seem likely that a huge technology firm could survive merely by serving the federal market.

By the way, if Bartlet chose to retain Anteris' contracts, he wouldn't have to get Congress' permission to do it. The executive branch can make decisions about who is allowed to sell to agencies all by itself. Just ask Enron and Arthur Andersen.

On the nitpick front, Toby helped make a point highlighted in the May issue of Government Executive-that the government lacks key foreign language skills. He pronounced Novaya Gazeta, the name of a Russian newspaper, as "Na-VY-ya." The correct pronunciation would place the accent on the first syllable: "NO-va-ya."

Reader feedback: Several readers have noted that it's unlikely an SR-71 aircraft would have taken the reconnaissance photos of Iraq, since that aircraft is no longer in use. The SR-71 was retired in 1990, although a few more were brought back into service in the mid-1990s before the program was cancelled in late 2001.

A retired Air Force officer who wishes to remain anonymous says "a continuing gaffe on the show concerns the military uniforms for the White House aides. As a former attaché myself, I know that all attachés and aides wear the aiguillette (rope on shoulder) on the left shoulder except for those assigned to the president and vice president. These people are supposed to wear their aiguillette on the right shoulder."

A few people have taken issue with our analysis of the Anteris subplot, noting that even if retaining federal business wouldn't be enough by itself to keep the company afloat, it would be a vote of confidence that would certainly help the firm in its rebuilding efforts. True enough, but we still think Leo's loan guarantee proposal would be a whole lot more helpful.

April 24

We're still waiting for a new regular episode to critique, but this special, based on interviews with former presidents and their staffers, was at least a nice reminder that there are dedicated public servants in the real world and not just on TV.

One small note: For those, like us, who may have doubted David Gergen's statement that there's no room on Mt. Rushmore for any more presidents, according to the National Park Service, he's right. Rep. Matt Salmon, R-Ariz., mounted an effort a few years back to get President Reagan added to the monument, but the Park Service said there was no place for Reagan--or anybody else--and that trying to blast through the surrounding rock to create additional space would endanger the existing sculptures.

April 3

After last week's episode, which took a shot at Web sites that critique the show (ahem), we're feeling particularly petty. So this week, we had our gaffe radar on full alert. It didn't take long for a blip to hit our radar screen. Within moments of the opening credits, Josh and Sam start discussing the upcoming health, education and welfare committee's markup of an educational technology bill. Sorry guys, no such committee. Twenty two years ago, there was a Cabinet department called Health, Education and Welfare, but it became Health and Human Services on May 4, 1980. And as far as we know, there was never a committee with that name. Our next quibble is debatable, but we're not sure we agree with Josh's statement that presidential proclamations "have the force of law." Indiana University Law School's Web site explains that "proclamations are normally used for public relations, ceremonial occasions, or celebrations and, although directed to the public at large, have little 'real' legal effect." In our humble opinion, only a law has the force of law. And only Congress can pass a law. Next up is the minor story line in which President Bartlet files Charlie's taxes online. We just don't like the use of government equipment for the filing of personal taxes, though we couldn't find an ethics rule prohibiting it. Moreover, if President Bartlet's tax rebate works the way President Bush's tax rebate worked, then Charlie shouldn't have had the shock of owing money instead of the joy of receiving a refund. As the IRS explained last year, "most people have received the full benefit of this change, and it will not affect how they complete their 2001 tax returns." The only people whose returns would be affected were those who didn't receive the tax rebate, and those people would be due a larger refund or a smaller amount owed. Finally, the HUD secretary's contention to Toby that a story would not even make "page A-17 of the Metro section" doesn't work. The "A" section of The Washington Post is the first section of the paper, covering primarily national and international news. Metro is the "B" section of the paper. O.K. We're done being petty now. But the New Mexico Governor's Office has something to say about the nuclear spill story line. Reader feedback: Many West Wing Watch readers thought we were WAY too petty this week. Readers were particularly dismissive of our comments about presidential proclamations and the use of government equipment to file taxes. We're willing to concede on those two issues, because other readers found much better quibbles.

  • An OMBer said people in the know don't refer to NAEP as "N-A-E-P," as Sam did. They call it "nape." Secondly, "NAEP is only used in the U.S. It's the TIMSS study that compares different nations (and where the U.S. has not done very well)."
  • Debra Lightsey of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention passed on a note from her husband Scott, an English professor at Georgia State. "Bartlet, supposedly highly educated and the son of a New England schoolmaster, last night made the most egregious gaffe, asking a retiring English teacher if she taught Beowulf 'in the original Middle English.' As everyone should know, Middle English was the language of Chaucer (d.1400), while Beowulf, the first English epic, was recorded centuries earlier in Old English. The distinction is significant, and the error unforgivable! The 'education president' indeed."
  • Paul Van de Water of the Social Security Administration questioned the HUD Secretary's contention that the New Jersey gubernatorial election would be held in three years. If Bartlet is up for re-election this year, then the New Jersey election will be held next year.
  • FEMA's Philip Clark had both an accolade and a correction for the producers. "The April 3 episode marked a return to the impressive standard of writing often displayed by this program, but it is not FEMA's call whether or not to evacuate Elk Horn--or anyplace else--when a truck bearing atomic waste catches fire. We have no such authority."
New York TimesThe Washington PostNY TimesWest Wing's

"'Depleted uranium fuel rods,' as the script put it several times, would not be much of a problem as they would be barely radioactive (depleted uranium, from which the targets for plutonium manufacturing in DOE's production reactors at Hanford and Savannah River were made, is about 0.3% U235 and the remainder U238--the material used for armored plating and armor-piercing munitions), and they would probably not be shipped in Type B containers. "There has been controversy, of course, about the potential health effects of spent DU munitions which have been used by the US military in the Gulf War, Bosnia/Kosovo, and in Afghanistan. "However, the script then described the material involved as spent fuel from a Naval reactor. If that is the case then the scenario is pretty good, because spent Naval fuel is shipped in Type B containers for storage at DOE's Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory. The description of the crash and fire resistance of Type Bs that Leo gives is also accurate. So is the idea that there might be shipments of low-level waste to the Barnwell disposal facility in South Carolina and transuranic waste from Rocky Flats to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad on the road. Except for the slip on depleted uranium early on, which got my attention, they have done their homework." A former nuclear-trained submariner and current Defense employee chimed in: "Not so fast on letting them off the hook on the RadCon disaster. If from a Naval reactor (I'll assume they are talking about a reactor from a US Navy ship or prototype facility) the only 'rods' in the reactor are the control rods which control (hence, the name) whether the reactor is critical. "And they are not made of uranium but of a material which will absorb neutrons. If control rods were being shipped, cesium (Leo stated that there was no danger of airborn cesium) would not be a problem as it is a radioisotope resulting from the fission of the uranium atom (look at it as a big rock, the uranium atom, being broken into smaller rocks, one of which would be a cesium rock), of which there are dozens of major concern. These fission products are contained within the fuel cells, or fuel assemblies. It is my guess that spent fuel assemblies (fuel cells with most of the uranium used up) were what was being shipped on last night's show. And if that's the case, yes depending on the integrity of the containment vessel in the fire, could have been a big problem." Finally, Zac Abraham, a civilian contractor with nine years experience as a Naval Nuclear Reactor Operator had this to say about the alleged spent rods from the USS Harry S. Truman: "While the USS Harry S. Truman does have a pair of nuclear reactors aboard, she was commissioned on 7/25/98; replacing the control rods in a nuclear reactor only when necessary would be a span of time measured in decades, not the mere three and a half years alluded to here. Though minor, it garnered a good chuckle."

March 27

Call us egotistical, but is it possible that the writers and producers of West Wing are reading West Wing Watch? If not, how do you explain the subplot in this week's episode about Josh's obsession with a geeky Web site, "lemonlyman.com," that reports on his activities? Josh gets upset that the site makes fun of him for saying "we" (meaning, presumably, the White House) would order a GAO report on some subject or other. He angrily declares that he knows full well that only members of Congress, not the White House, can request GAO reports.

So how did the writers come upon this particular issue? We don't know, but we do know that we pointed out the Bartlet administration's apparent misunderstanding of GAO way back on Oct. 31. Josh gets himself in trouble by posting a message on lemonlyman.com lamely suggesting that by "we" he meant the administration's Democratic friends in Congress. "The White House can get a GAO report on anything it wants without posing a threat to the separation of powers," Josh rants. For that, he rightly gets cuffed around by the Web site's users. Our favorite part of the subplot, though, was the tiny note of realism at the end: Someone from The Washington Post's Federal Page reads the Web site's scoop and calls the White House to say it's pursuing its own story on the subject.

Reader feedback: Fans of televisionwithoutpity.com have let us know that this site--on which WW creator Aaron Sorkin himself has posted--is clearly the main target of the "lemonlyman.com" barbs on this week's show. But that doesn't explain how he learned about how GAO works.

Other nitpicks this week: The correct reference to the Ivy League institution in President Bartlet's home state is Dartmouth College, not "Dartmouth University," points out Amy Hooper, Dartmouth class of 2001. And it's the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, not "Reserve," notes another reader.

March 6

The good old West Wing is back! What's better than an episode featuring a member of the Bartlet family opting for the tough, painful course of action simply because it's the right thing to do? How about one that also features the world's greatest national anthem, "O Canada"?

We have to confess some confusion, though about Canada's apparent annexation of Warroad, Minnesota (otherwise known as "Hockeytown U.S.A."), resulting in Donna's citizenship snafu with the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Warroad was, is, and-barring an invasion by Canada across Lake of the Woods-always will be a part of the state of Minnesota. Donna's Minnesota heritage, however, does go a long way toward explaining why she is consistently the smartest, savviest and most level-headed member of the West Wing staff.

Reader feedback: A large number of current and former Oregonians have written in to note that in discussing a wine from the Willamette Valley in Oregon, President Bartlet managed to mispronounce both "Willamette" and "Oregon." And Dr. Brian E. Harvey, senior medical officer at the Center for Devices and Radiological Health at the Food and Drug Administration, points out that contrary to Dr. Abigail Bartlet's statement, it's the stomach, not the pancreas, that produces hydrochloric acid.

Feb. 27

The long Olympic break is finally over. Unfortunately, President Bartlet still hasn't worked out his relationship with his father. But at least his obsession didn't completely dominate this episode.

By the way, with all due respect, isn't Bartlet getting a little annoying with his ceaseless condescending erudition? I realize they were trying to develop the point that Toby was challenging him to run as the smart guy he is, but at the rate he's spewing useless trivia, he'll quickly turn into President Cliff Claven.

It was nice to see Donna continue her role as the ethical conscience of the staff, reminding Josh that she couldn't make calls to try to sway New Hampshire voters' opinions from her White House phone. But perhaps she should have a little chat with Charlie, who went on a rampage destroying government property--not only super-gluing C.J.'s phone, but sawing the legs off her desk. Doesn't he know that the General Accounting Office is still investigating allegations that Clinton staffers messed with the stuff in their offices before the Bush folks took over?

Finally, it seems odd that a show that goes out of its way to use insider terms for places and institutions wouldn't use the real name of the New Hampshire town that votes first in presidential primaries and elections--Dixville Notch--instead of calling it "Hartsfield's Landing."

On the gaffe front, Leo is still stuck on the incorrect phrase "battle carrier group." (See Jan. 30.) We await word from our always-reliable readers in the defense community on further problems with the military lingo related to the China-Taiwan situation.

Reader feedback: A number of readers have pointed out that we missed a rather large gaffe: Under federal law, the chess sets that President Bartlet got from the prime minister of India become the property of the U.S. government, and he can't give them away to White House staffers as gifts. (See 5 USC 7342). Also, one reader notes that the show's references to the aircraft carrier Independence are a bit dated, since the Independence was decommissioned in 1998. A couple of readers pointed out that if Donna was so concerned about proper use of phones, she--and her boss, Josh--might have thought twice about discussing sensitive national security issues over an unsecure cell phone. Finally, Adam Hill, a student at Davidson College in North Carolina, notes that in terms of geopolitics, the biggest goof on the show was the reference in the China plotline to Taiwan holding its first-ever free elections. Taiwan, of course, has been holding free elections for quite some time.

Feb. 6

Lots o' plot problems again this week, starting with President Bartlet's "Daddy didn't love me" psychodrama. Hmm, let's see: The President has just been censured for lying about a medical condition for years, and his staff gets the brilliant idea that he should SECRETLY SEE A PSYCHIATRIST?!?

The subplot involving the reporter kidnapped and murdered in the Congo was eerie--and in questionable taste, given the fact that Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl is currently being held hostage in Pakistan. You can bet if a government official or business leader, and not just some lowly reporter, was in captivity right now, they would've pulled this episode.

As for Donna's job offer, while for obvious reasons we hope and pray that only the hype of the dot-coms is dying, we feel pretty confident that one called Capitolscoop.com wouldn't attract much venture capital these days--certainly not enough to write a salary offer for an "issues director" on a cocktail napkin that would take someone's breath away.

Finally, the nitpick of the week: the Old Executive Office Building is now formally known as the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. The writers can be forgiven for not updating the lingo, though, since everybody still calls it the Old EOB.

Reader feedback: Several readers noted that in the real world, the press secretary would hardly be allowed to berate the representative of a foreign government in the White House. And, one anonymous reader asks, "Don't these people working at the White House ever go home? An 11:00 p.m. 'lunch break' by Donna for a drink at a bar is just not realistic."

Jan. 30

We're sorry, but there's just no kind way to say it: This episode really scraped bottom. Toby luridly psychoanalyzing the President in the Oval Office? C.J. whining that her father is getting Alzheimer's because affirmative action denied him the career he always deserved? Poor Sam getting stuck in the background again, forced to meet with some UFO freak about aliens being stored at Ft. Knox? And don't get us started on Josh's little Tahiti caper.

At least the episode was relatively gaffe-free. Still, anyone who has lived in the great state of Iowa-and we have-can tell you that you'd be a lot more likely to see the Butter Cow Lady create her fabulous sculpture in August at the Iowa State Fair than in February at some 4H convention in Cedar Rapids. (She also really did create the butter "Last Supper" C.J. talked about. Don't believe it? Click here.) What's more, while the President might conceivably jet in and out of Cedar Rapids on caucus day, if he wanted to be where the action really is, he'd head for the Savery Hotel in downtown Des Moines, where the politicos and journalists hang out.

Reader feedback: John Daggett, a staffer at the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee and a former naval officer, writes that, "For the second time, Leo referred to the flotilla of a carrier and its escorts as a 'battle carrier.' This is incorrect. The phrase is 'carrier battle group.' " Another reader notes that Leo gives the name of the lead carrier in the group as "Thurmond," and wonders whether he meant to say "Truman," which is an actual carrier. We think Leo was just prematurely honoring the not-yet-late Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C.

Another anonymous civil servant argues that "the tearjerker phone call between C.J. and her father from Air Force One was neither interesting nor probable. Personal long distance calls from Air Force One? I'm not even supposed to make those from my office on the ground!"

Jan. 16

"I think that giving people a vision of government that is more than Social Security checks and debt reduction is good."-Sam Seaborn

It was nice to see Sam take center stage again, after several weeks of relative dormancy in which he was ignominiously forced to pop in from time to time and deal with trivial issues like eliminating the penny. Unfortunately, he returns in a plot line that, to say the least, stretches credulity.

We're not sure which is less likely, that Vanity Fair would send a reporter to cover her ex-fiancee who now works in the White House, or that the oh-so-reticent Sam would casually spill secrets to her about what was cut out of the State of the Union address. He refuses to share internal polling data that makes the President look like the second coming of JFK, but is willing to leak the story that Bartlet didn't have the guts to follow through with a proposal to cure cancer?

On the gaffe front, Donna was apparently working from an outdated (or nonexistent) government manual when she declared that regulations governing federal travel take 6,000 words to describe how to arrange air travel. Travel regulations have recently been rewritten in plain English to deal with the problem, as Donna noted, that they appeared to be "designed to break a person's spirit."

Finally, is anybody else getting annoyed by the reliance on flashbacks to frame episode after episode?

Reader feedback: "I beg to differ," with the above characterization of the revised travel regs, writes a federal traveler. "They may be in 'plain English,' but the question and answer format [makes it] impossible to find relevant information quickly. The only way to find something fast is if you're lucky enough to guess the right question in which resides the answer you're looking for." And Dan Philbin, who works in the Directorate for Public Inquiry and Analysis of the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs, has conducted an inquiry and analysis leading to three words of advice for us: "Get a life." We'll work on that, we promise--between now and 9:00 PM EST on Wednesday.

Jan. 9

"No one in government takes responsibility for anything any more. … I'm to blame. I was wrong."-President Bartlet

This is why people love this show. So let's start this week with the credit-where-credit-is-due department. While the show has struggled in the past with the legal niceties of congressional resolutions, this time, in discussing how Congress will censure Bartlet, they get it right: The President signs joint resolutions, but concurrent resolutions simply need to be approved by the House and the Senate. And on a minor note, it was nice to see them finally acknowledge that Washington weather forecasters never seem to be able to predict when a snowstorm will start, when it will stop, how much it will snow, or, for that matter, whether it will snow at all. Events of just the last week bear this out.

Now for the quibble of the week: Leo's lawyer, mocking the triviality of many congressional resolutions, notes that one was passed to honor the memory of George Washington. She suggests it's unlikely that anybody would forget the father of our country. "What's that tall thing at the end of the Mall?" she asks sarcastically. Umm, we don't know, but it's not the Washington Monument. Because that's right in the middle of the Mall--which one could verify just by looking out the window of the White House chief of staff's office, where she happened to be standing. Maybe that resolution wasn't so silly after all.

Reader feedback: West Wing's writers may have figured out how resolutions work, but not how they're identified, notes Margo Hennigan, who works on Capitol Hill. The title of the show, "H.Con 172," is not a form of terminology used in the House. In real life, the concurrent resolution at the heart of this week's episode would be called H.Con.Res. 172. And a preservation-minded reader asks, "What idiot touches a 300-year-old map without wearing gloves? Let alone rolling it up repeatedly! Doesn't Bartlet watch 'Antiques Roadshow'?"

Jan. 2

A two-fer of repeats tonight--the first two episodes of the season (not counting that abysmal post-Sept. 11 "Isaac and Ishmael" thing they foisted on us at the beginning of the year). The focus of the shows was almost exclusively on politics, as the team struggled to crank up the Bartlet reelection campaign amidst backbiting over his failure to tell them or the American people that he had MS. A high point was watching slick political operative Bruno Gianelli (played by Ron Silver) actually leave Josh speechless.

Before he was rendered mute, Josh managed to correct the perception in the White House that the Food and Drug Administration is an independent agency, noting that it in fact resides within the Department of Health and Human Services. (FDA has had many homes over the years, including the Agriculture Department, the Federal Security Agency and HHS, but it has never been independent.) As such, it seems unlikely to us that, as C.J. suggested, it would be illegal for a White House official to have a discussion with an FDA official about the timing of the announcement of its approval of a particular drug. It would merely be seen as unseemly. FDA readers, feel free to further enlighten us on this point.

Dec. 19

A superb Christmas episode from the pre-West Wing Watch days. We get to watch Josh wrestle quite publicly with his post-shooting demons, and Adam Arkin goes toe-to-toe with him in the role of Dr. Stanley Keyworth of the American Trauma Victims Association. Then, to top it off, Yo-Yo Ma shows up to perform a sublime Bach piece at the end. On the technical front, the writers did a very nice job with the details of the pursuit of the missing F-16 fighter. And Josh even corrected Keyworth on the pronunciation of "Rosslyn," sparing us the trouble of having to do it. So we're taking a Christmas break from quibbling about gaffes. (Translation: We didn't find any.)

Reader feedback: We may have thought the writers had the Air Force down cold, but Rick Charles, a program analyst at the Treasury Department and a former Air Force officer and aviator, showed us the light. He pointed out several small problems:

  • Leo listed some bases and units from which fighters were scrambled to intercept the missing F-16. He named fighters from Edwards Air Force Base; the "301st from Texas," referring to the 301st Fighter Wing from the Air Force Reserve in Fort Worth; and the 944th Fighter Wing, also Air Force Reserve, from Luke Air Force Base near Phoenix. None of these bases are home to fighter units that have an air defense mission (and therefore none of them carry live air-to-air missiles). The units in Texas and Arizona are designated as air-to-ground units and usually carry bombs instead of a full compliment of air-to-air missiles. (All F-16s carry two AIM-9 Sidewinder air-to-air missiles on their wingtips). Plus, Edwards AFB is strictly a test base and there are no units there that have a combat mission.
  • Josh Lyman was reviewing the pilot's UPRG (Unit Personnel Records Group)--that is, his personnel file. It contained a picture of the pilot in a flight suit. Two problems here: first, UPRGs no longer contain photos of junior officers (a captain, in this case). The practice was stopped in the early 1990s because bias was alleged to have occurred when reviewing officers judged officers by their appearance instead or in addition to their performance record. Second, if photos were still included in a UPRG the officer's photograph would show him or her in full service dress ("dress blues"), not a flight suit. It would be a professionally shot portrait from the waist up, not some snapshot that appears to have been printed on a color printer.
  • I find it very, very hard to believe the President and senior staff would be involved in the case of a missing pilot so quickly, especially if it's a domestic situation and not one involving combat. The communications channels from the controlling agency that last had air traffic control of the F-16 (whether it was the military or the Federal Aviation Administration) through the plane's home base to Langley Air Force Base (Air Combat Command headquarters) and on to the Pentagon and ultimately to the White House simply does not move that fast; certainly not in 40 minutes. It took at least 10 minutes for President Bush to get word of the first plane striking the World Trade Center, and the magnitude of that event speaks for itself.

Dec. 12

This was a terrific and very moving episode, wasn't it? It had so many of the elements that make West Wing great: characters who put principle ahead of politics, dry wit from the President's staff and illuminating backstory about the campaign that led to Jed Bartlet's election. Even the commercials were good: It was nice to see the Postal Service promoting itself as a public service organization instead of a FedEx wannabe.

It's enough to make us feel very small and insigificant as we point out that they still seem to have a mental block about the name of the House Government Reform Committee (formerly the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee--see Oct. 31 analysis below). This time, the chairman of the committee, of all people, called it the "House Reform and Government Oversight Committee."

Reader feedback: An anonymous but well-informed source e-mailed us with some observations about the details of the hearing at the centerpiece of this week's episode:

  • The Government Reform Committee's hearing room and offices are not nearly as lavish as depicted on the show.
  • It's unlikely that a member would ask the minority counsel to stipulate to anything (on the show, Rep. Gibson asked minority counsel to stipulate to the meaning of "collapsed").
  • Chief counsel for the majority does not sit down front with junior members of the committee. He sits right next to the chairman. From where he was on the show, he could not have communicated with the chairman during the hearing without shouting over the heads of a row or two of members. By the way, the rest of the staffers sit on tiny little benches in the cramped space behind the last row of members.
  • The chairman does not ask counsel for permission to adjourn a hearing, as did the chairman on the show.
  • Counsel for witnesses may naturally confer with their clients, but the chair does not entertain objections from them. Under the rules, only the witness has a voice in the proceeding. Oliver North's attorney, Brendan Sullivan, was wrong; in a congressional hearing, he is a "potted plant."
  • On the show, Leo's counsel objected to a member's historical reference as irrelevant. If a counsel were going to interpose an objection contrary to the rules (a la Brendan Sullivan), it would have been more believable if there were a more weighty issue in the balance, like some alleged violation of constitutional rights.

Dec. 5

This episode was a repeat from last year, but West Wing Watch wasn't around then, so we'll take a look at it now.

When Josh goes to visit the surgeon general-who is also the godmother of one of the President's daughters-to order her to submit her resignation, he declares, "You serve at the pleasure of the President." Well, yes and no. The surgeon general has a four-year term, which is designed to provide whoever holds the office some protection from politically motivated dismissal.

President Clinton forced Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders to resign, but such a move is highly unusual. The Bush administration, for example, has no great love for the current surgeon general, David Satcher, who was appointed by Clinton. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer made that clear after Satcher released a report last summer saying there was no evidence showing that teaching sexual abstinence in schools was successful. Conservative groups called for Satcher's ouster.

"The President understands the report was issued by a surgeon general that he did not appoint, a surgeon general who was appointed by the previous administration," said Fleischer. But the White House didn't run out and fire Satcher, or force him to quit. (Satcher said last month that he will leave when his term ends Feb. 13.)

One more thing: If President Bush appointed the godmother of one of his children to be surgeon general, and then wanted to fire her, we hope he wouldn't send his deputy chief of staff to do it.

Nov. 28

It's hard to criticize an episode that featured as impressive an array of properly used government terminology and Washington insider references as this one. Not only did Aaron Sorkin and Co. include discussions of F-117 fighters and M1A1 tank kits, but they get big points for using the proper acronym for the brand-new Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

Nevertheless, President Bartlet had a little problem with the derivation of the term "red tape," saying it comes from Civil War veterans' documents being bound in red tape. But the practice of binding legal and government documents in red tape is a traditional practice in England and dates back well before the Civil War. To be fair, though, it looked like Charlie was about to set the record straight, but stopped himself.

Besides that, only two minor quibbles:

  • It's pretty unlikely that an announcement about mad cow disease in the United States would be handled by the Department of Health and Human Services, especially if the briefing on it was to be led by an Agriculture Department official.
  • It's borderline plausible that a President as smart as Josiah Bartlet wouldn't know when the Clean Water Act was passed, but not that someone would have to explain to him what an unfunded mandate is. He's an ex-governor, for goodness' sake.
Reader feedback:

Nov. 21

President Bartlet spends much of the hour trying to track down the Butterball Turkey Hotline. Couldn't someone have let him know that his own Agriculture Department runs the definitive turkey hotline? Next time, Mr. President, just call 1-800-535-4555.

Nov. 14

Emmy winner Hal Holbrook provides a high-wattage cameo this week, as an Assistant Secretary of State. Inexplicably, though, President Bartlet and Leo keep calling him "Mr. Secretary." And while we're on the subject, did the President and his chief of staff really need to spend four hours cooling their heels in the Oval Office waiting to find out whether a submarine was dead in the water off the coast of North Korea? Clearly this was an effort to increase Holbrooke's screen time, but it's a little disconcerting to think that the President of the United States couldn't find some way to kill a few hours in the middle of a work day.

Reader feedback: Several readers have pointed out that it's not uncommon for undersecretaries and assistant secretaries to be addressed as "Mr. Secretary." Who knew? We still think it's a little weird.

Nov. 7

Kudos to the show for weaving a subplot around the fact that the seats in the White House press room have little brass nameplates saying which news organization they belong to. But in the real world, the reporters themselves would turn on a colleague who committed the sin of sitting in a seat assigned to another media outlet long before the press secretary would've noticed it. Trust us on this one-we've been caught in an unauthorized seat, and it wasn't a pleasant experience.

Oct. 31 In a subplot this week, a Democratic congressman keeps demanding that the administration agree to produce a General Accounting Office report on some agricultural issue. The request makes no sense, since GAO is an arm of Congress and produces reports only at the request of members. More than once, The West Wing has tried to score credibility points with references to a presumably obscure agency like GAO without understanding how it works. Reader feedback: Maya Bernstein, a former Office of Management and Budget official who was responsible for oversight of the 1974 Privacy Act, notes that C.J. was off base when she dressed down a reporter who asked for the identities of two Americans killed in a terrorist attack in Jerusalem. C.J. said the Privacy Act prevented such disclosure, which is wrong for three reasons:

  • The Privacy Act grants individuals certain rights in federal government records about themselves, and requires the government to protect those records according to specified rules. One rule is that records should not be disclosed without consent (of course, there are exceptions). However, individuals must exercise these rights personally if they are of legal age. While parents can consent to disclosure on behalf of their minor children, the victims in the episode were said to be brothers 19 and 20 years old, over the age of majority. Therefore, the parents would not have any say in what happened to their records under the Privacy Act.
  • Dead people don't have Privacy Act rights. The rights expire with the person.
  • The White House is not subject to the Privacy Act (although some of the agencies within the Executive Office of the President are subject to it-- OK, the issue is actually on appeal in the so-called "Filegate" case, but it's unlikely to change the situation). C.J. could have disclosed information about the two victims even if they had not died.

Oct. 24 This week, Donna's new beau, a House committee staffer, announces that he's been traded to the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee, which makes little sense on two levels: 1. The committee long ago dropped "and Oversight" from its title; 2. Hill staffers aren't like players on a sports team, swapped from one committee to another without knowing why.