Last Will and President

As 'West Wing' Leaves Office, a Last Chance to Debrief the Staff

By Jennifer Frey - Washington Post Staff Writer

C.J., Josh, Toby, Sam - the men and women of TV’s "West Wing" arrived in 1999, and Washington greeted them like rock stars. We tried to elbow into their entourage; we yearned to get inside their faux-D.C. bubble. We even managed to make it a bipartisan event.

Rep. Tom DeLay crowed about plans to add a House majority whip to the cast. Madeleine Albright made a late-night visit to a taping in Georgetown. Alan Greenspan professed his addiction to the program. And Mayor Anthony Williams managed to get his name linked to "The West Wing" by announcing that the show had "pumped $2.6 million into the local economy" in its first season.

Even the First Fan (then-President Bill Clinton) was compelled to summon series creator Aaron Sorkin to the White House.

Why such reactions? Because they made us look good. They made us feel incandescent instead of battery-operated. Theirs was a Washington where power brokers were deliciously Machiavellian instead of merely malevolent. Watching the show was like looking into the Reflecting Pool - only the reflection seemed more luminous.

And when the actors came to visit (only a few times per season, alas), we hoped some of that star power would rub off. The glow, though, has dimmed-actually, it had been fading for a while. Clinton left office and, as show stalwart Allison Janney puts it: "I have a feeling President Bush has never seen 'The West Wing.' " After 9/11, there was a distinct dialing-down of the humor, the pratfalls, the quirky repartee, because it just no longer seemed right. The ratings sagged. President Bartlet-and the show itself - became a lame duck.

The red carpet grew so threadbare that at the White House Correspondents' Association dinner last month, not one "West Wing" star was in attendance.

Now the political party's over-after seven seasons, the series finale airs tonight at 8 on NBC. Still, we couldn't let it go without a last attempt to slip inside that world, that fantasy Washington. Fortunately, some of the show's power players are now willing to tell (almost) all, before the "West Wing" motorcade pulls away one last time.

"As you might guess," says writer-producer John Wells, who ran the show after Sorkin left, "we laughed a lot."

"The West Wing" pilot episode (60 minutes) airs tonight at 7 p.m. on Channel 4, followed by the series finale (60 minutes) at 8.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company