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“Walk With Me”: The Alternate History of The West Wing

By Matthew Kresal

Any serious discussion of TV in the last twenty years or so will likely include The West Wing. Aaron Sorkin's drama series ran for seven seasons on NBC (the first four with his direct involvement), taking viewers inside the Presidency of Jed Bartlet (Martin Sheen) and, later, the race to replace him. It's a series remembered mostly for its wit and now-famous "walk and talk" sequences of characters moving through the titular White House offices. Yet, there's something that perhaps only the most die-hard fans of the series may have realized.

Namely, it might secretly be a work of alternate history.

No, I don't just refer to the fact that Sheen's Jed Bartlet is President. Obviously by a strict definition of the term, any fiction with fictional characters is alternate history. Yes, Jeb Bartlett was not born in our world and so his career automatically altered history but the same could be said about Frasier Crane. But the differences in The West Wing are more that just our political structure with fictional participants, it seems like in this world the structure itself has been altered.

From its very first season, set a year or so into the Bartlet administration, it's clear that something about the history is off. Why would they be worrying, for example, about the upcoming 2000 census and not the Presidential Election? The mid-term election the following season likewise seems to throw the time scales off a bit, doubly so since 2000 was to become an infamous Presidential election year. Part of this was deliberate on the part of Sorkin, who in a 2000 interview with PBS' The News Hour with Jim Lehrer, stated:

"Well, in fact, the universe of "The West Wing" is two years off of reality. So we have midterm elections [in the second] season, and they are eager to win the House back. In the season opening two-part episode, we go into extended flashback sequences to three years ago the original primary campaign, showing how all of these people came together in the first place."

Though that still doesn't answer the question of how election years ended so far off. Nor did Sorkin's successor as showrunner, John Wells, who in a 2004 interview with the Associated Press, said:

"We were a year and a half into the administration when we started the show... We have term limits in this country, and so, on our electoral schedule, Bartlet's second term would end a year from this coming January."

The timeline confusion is further compounded by campaign banners in the Season Six finale 2162 Votes clearly saying on-screen "Democratic Convention 2006." The available evidence means that the election to replace Bartlet comes in November 2006, his second term election in 2002, and elected to his first term in 1998. So, how did this all happen?

Let's start with what the show itself can tell us. The last real-life President explicitly referenced as such in the show is Richard Nixon, first mentioned in the episode Six Meetings Before Lunch. The Season Five opener 7A WF 83429 has Will Bailey (Joshua Malina) make a passing reference to Watergate when he responds to Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford) asking about there being hidden camera or tape recorders in the White House with, "Not since the mid-'70s." Further, Donald Rumsfeld, who served in the administrations of Nixon and Gerald Ford, is mentioned in the first season episode The Short List among a list of "the great White House staffers," by a critic of the Bartlet Administration. Executive Order 11905, signed by Gerald Ford in February 1976, is referenced in season four's Inauguration: Over There, suggesting Ford became President at some point. Further, while Ronald Reagan is never given a mention to as a former President, his name prominently appears outside a building at George Washington Hospital during In The Shadow of Two Gunmen, Part Two, this being the hospital Reagan came to after his 1981 assassination attempt. 1991’s Operation Desert Storm is given references and the Iraq no-fly zones are mentioned in late season one/early season two.

Was J. Fred Buzhardt the POD of the West Wing?

The mentions of Nixon, along with the passing references to Watergate and Rumsfeld, suggest a potential POD in the early 1970s. One that sees Nixon still resign, but perhaps in 1973 instead of 1974. As noted in a 2006 blog post by Nate Dredge, November 1973 saw Nixon lawyers Fred Buzhardt and Leonard Garment attempting to alert Nixon that his only recourse would be to resign. The meeting never happened, though Nixon resigned the following August. Perhaps in The West Wing, Nixon took their advice and left office 10-12 months earlier than in real-life.

At that point, Vice President Spiro Agnew had resigned, with no replacement in place. Thus, the line of succession would have gone to the Speaker of the House. In 1973, that was Oklahoma Congressman Carl Albert. Albert, in this reading of events, and the Congress call a special election set for the 3rd of November, 1974. Doing so, and keeping to the US Constitution requiring a presidential election every four years, would allow for the change in election years consistent with the show.

And what about the Presidents between Nixon (or Albert) and Bartlet? In the series itself, only two are mentioned, both in the fifth season episode The Stormy Present. One is single-term Democratic President D. Wire Newman (James Cromwell) and the two-term conservative Republican Owen Lassiter (around whose funeral the episode takes place). Before Bartlet took office, a Republican had been in office for two terms, based on retiring Supreme Court Justice Joseph Crouch saying to Bartlet in the episode The Short List that, "I wanted to retire five years ago. But I waited for a Democrat." The episode In God We Trust says there have been four Republicans in the White House since 1970, two of which won 49 states, and would include Nixon and Lassiter plus two others. Elsewhere, we know that Chief of Staff Leo McGarry (John Spencer) served as the Secretary of Labor in a previous administration before convincing Bartlet to run for President.

Dredge, in his 2006 blog post, suggests the following list of Presidents before Bartlet.

Nixon (1969-73) R

Albert (1973-75) D

Ford (1975-1979) R

Reagan (1979-1987) R

Newman (1987-1991) D

Lassiter (1991-1999) R

On the surface, Dredge's theory makes sense. There's just one problem with it, though. The Stormy Present sees a great deal said about how conservative a Republican Lassiter's presidency was, and also his elderly age when he passed away in 2004. With Leo being a Democrat and a former Secretary of Labor in the first term of the administration before Bartlet, it seems unlikely that the hawkish conservative would have appointed a Democrat to a prominent position in his cabinet. Even so, Leo could potentially have served under Newman, though he would have been in his late thirties/early forties if so, per his age at the time he dies late in season seven. That isn't unheard of as Robert MacNamara was roughly that age when Kennedy appointed him Secretary of Defense, for example, but still unusual. Alternatively Leo, as a Vietnam veteran coming from something of an oil background, might have been a token Democrat in Lassiter’s cabinet. Serving under Lassiter might explain Leo's pushing against Bartlet's attempts at large-scale military interventions in episodes such as A Proportional Response and The War at Home.

So what's the solution? With the available evidence, the 1974 special election could still take place. Ford wins that election, only to be unseated at the 1978 convention by Reagan (something which came close to occurring in the real 1976 election). Reagan could suffer a similar assassination attempt to his real 1981 one, though whether he survives or not is not clear. Lassiter could succeed him mid-term should he either die or be left indisposed by the shooting (again, things which very nearly occurred). Newman follows Lassiter, winning in November 1986 but losing in November 1990 to a moderate (albeit unnamed) Republican who serves two terms before Bartlet's victory in 1998. That same Republican perhaps winning because of the crisis that culminates in Operation: Desert Storm, Newman suffering the fate of Jimmy Carter a decade earlier in real-life, explaining his overriding interest in foreign policy. Leo could conceivably have served in either Newman or the moderate Republican’s cabinet, the latter during the first term.

That suggests the following list of Presidents before Bartlet.

Nixon (1969-73) R

Albert (1973-75) D

Ford (1975-1979) R

Reagan (1979-1981?) R

Lassiter (1981?-1987) R

Newman (1987-1991) D

Unknown (1991-1999) R

This version of events offers solutions, but also raises some questions. Carl Albert, who became President in this supposed version of events, died in February 2000, without being mentioned in the series. Neither Ford nor Reagan receive mention or appearance in The Stormy Present, Lassiter being modelled on Reagan to an extent in the first place. And what about that seemingly moderate two-term Republicans before Bartlet?

Perhaps, in the end, there is no way to make sense of it. Like the controversy in Doctor Who fan circles over when the UNIT stories of its 20th-century incarnation took place, we are perhaps seeking out nuggets in a wasteland. A wasteland created by different production teams, each with their own ideas (if they cared at all), and often not sticking with them. Whatever the case, intentionally or not, it is clear that The West Wing takes place in a version of history quite like our own, yet subtly off, even while exploring familiar events from our recent history. After all, The West Wing drew on the Clinton years for inspiration in its early seasons, while its 2006 election saw a candidate modeled on Barack Obama win two years earlier than in real-life.

All of which, for this writer, certainly fits the bill of being alternate history. Albeit one in a subtle, and very likely never intended, fashion. But then, isn't all alternate history speculation?


Matthew Kresal is a fiction writer who has also written a book about the TV series 'Dark Skies'


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