The West Wing: The Biggest Crises President Bartlet Faced

The West Wing crammed way more than two terms of drama into President Jed Bartlet's administration.

President Jed Bartlett (Martin Sheen), Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff), and Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe) on The West Wing
Photo: Steve Shapiro | NBC

Aaron Sorkin‘s The West Wing is one of the most optimistic shows to air on television. From 1999 to 2006, President Josiah “Jed” Bartlet, played by the versatile veteran actor Martin Sheen, and his idealistic staff of deep thinkers presented the illusion that Capitol Hill was where the finest minds in America worked together to find the right answers, and got bonus points for the most self-righteous. The NBC series began the same year as HBO’s The Sopranos, and could be seen as its polar opposite, though the two shows had many similarities. Both were considered dramas, but had so many individual laugh lines they veered into comedy. Each featured a strong leader who faced crises, at home and abroad.

Starting with the very first episode, President Bartlet confronted beltway blowback, global dissension, and harsh life-threatening decisions. Some of these issues were personal, because a president’s private life affects the political process. If the President of the United States suffers, so does his reasoning. Luckily, regardless of the circumstances, Bartlet’s wit remained unaffected, if sometimes far harsher than his norm. National scares tend to do that.

The series focused on The White House staff more than the president, and over the course of seven seasons, the DC professionals brought on their own challenges. Chief of Staff Leo McGary (John Spencer) fends off substance abuse issues which could take down the administration. Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford) will take a bullet for the president, and almost lose his senior assistant Donna Moss (Janel Moloney) to a car-bombing in a foreign nation.

Communications Director Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff) is the brother of an astronaut, and the son of a mobster with the mind of a political monster who is not averse to bullying adversaries or going over their heads, regardless of which side of the aisle they vote. Deputy Communications Director Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe) is so cute when he accidentally sleeps with, and subsequently wants to save, a call girl (Lisa Edelstein), we just want to grab him by the ear and walk him into a wall. This is something Press Secretary C.J. Cregg (Allison Janney) does verbally, to each of her co-workers over the course of the series. It is the reason she ultimately becomes chief of staff.

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The West Wing faced debt ceilings, shutdowns, lost legislature, political appointments, and possibly an inadvertent coup when Leo, an unelected senior staffer, made presidential decisions during a Bartlet health crisis. Here are 10 times the Bartlet Administration faced off against disaster.

Bartlet’s Publicly Undisclosed Medical Condition

We learn about President Bartlet’s relapsing/remitting course of multiple sclerosis in the season 1 episode “He Shall, from Time to Time….” The president confides his condition to Leo, explaining he made a deal with the first lady, Abbey Bartlet (Stockard Channing), to only serve one term when he learned about his diagnosis. Bartlet also informed Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Percy “Fitz” Fitzwallace (John Amos), and Vice President John Hoynes (Tim Matheson).

Toby initially senses the secret after seeing Hoynes exhibit stump-like symptoms at campaign events. In a very tense scene from a later installment, Bartlet calls Hoynes out on this. The entire senior staff feels betrayed, more pissed at the president than the press or the party. They believe the public was badly served. The lie of omission is a moral and political quandary which forces them to run a re-election campaign while being taught “not to bother anybody.” Political consultants are called in, and the president balks at a public apology. 

The season 2 episode “17 People” is named for how many people in the world knew about the condition. Bartlet discloses his diagnosis to the public. He experiences a relapse during his re-election campaign, which he hides from the public until after the election.

Syrian Air Attack on An American Plane

The traditional honeymoon of a new presidency be damned. Bartlet is confronted by a choice of lethal force by season 1 episode 3, “A Proportional Response.” Bartlet finds a military physician, Captain Morris Tolliver (Ruben Santiago-Hudson), he trusts and feels personable with, even admiring pictures of the young doctor’s newborn. The President asks Tolliver to come on full-time, which he promises to do when he gets back from a scheduled trip at a teaching hospital in Jordan. Tolliver’s plane is shot down, killing all on board, and after intelligence is examined, the president learns the orders came from the Syrian Defense Ministry.

In the Situation Room with Leo and the Joint Chiefs, Fitzwallace presents three scenarios which meet the standards of a proportional response. Bartlet says they all sound like a parent docking an allowance, and asks “What is the virtue of a proportional response?” It is a question which goes back to Rob Reiner’s 1995 film An American President, co-written by Aaron Sorkin.

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While Bartlet’s response is initially taken as personal, he defends it on historic precedent. “A Roman citizen could walk across the earth without fear of being attacked in the certainty that the full wrath of the empire would be brought down in full upon anyone who dared molest one of her citizens,” Bartlet tells Leo, wishing he could promise the same for his citizens. The chief of staff warns that is not the kind of president he wants. But Fitzwallace outlines how it could be done, presenting a plan which would take out a major airport, causing widespread civilian casualties, and blocking the area from medical aid or food. Bartlet agrees it is an inappropriate response for what amounts to a “fifty buck crime.”  This is Charlie Young’s (Dulé Hill) introductory episode and he is optimism personified. “I’ve never felt like this before,” Charlie tells Josh after witnessing both sides of the president’s nature. Josh promises “It doesn’t go away.”

A Presidential Assassination Attempt

Rapid gunfire from an assassination attempt ends the season 1 finale “What Kind of Day Has It Been” in chaos. In season 2’s two-hour premiere, “In the Shadow of Two Gunmen,” we learn Bartlet was hit, and the attack also inflicted collateral damage on the staff. Secret Service Special Agent Ron Butterfield (Michael O’Neill), directly charged with the president’s safety, sustains a small hand injury. The president is in the middle of telling him to get it looked at when Butterfield checks Bartlet for possible injury, and feels blood near the stomach.

The number of people who know about Bartlet’s multiple sclerosis grows during this episode. Disclosing all medical conditions for treatment, Abbey quietly reveals the secret to the attending physician. Determining who is accounted for following the chaos of the attack, Toby comes up one short. He discovers Josh gasping for breath, holding his stomach, and hemorrhaging so much blood through his chest it covers his shirt and hands. He will ultimately be in surgery for 12 hours.

A manhunt for the shooting team ensues, which gives the series a chance to show flashbacks to when each of the staff joined Bartlet’s entourage. Meanwhile C.J. and her press department is under grueling scrutiny due to an escalating military situation which starts when an American pilot is shot down over Iraq. The Department of Defense demands immediate action, the press corps insists on information.

Civil War and Genocide in Kundu

The Kundu Crisis is inspired by the real-life 1994 Rwandan genocide. The fictional country is first mentioned in season 2’s “In This White House,” when President Nimbala (Zakes Mokae) meets with Josh and Toby, who threaten sanctions to stop Kundu from getting free or discounted HIV/AIDS medication from politically compromised sources. In exchange, they can buy from U.S. pharmaceutical companies, and spread the spending out over several loans so congress doesn’t have a chance to vote it down. The episode ends with Bartlet informing the visiting president that ARF rebels staged a coup d’état in Kundu. Nimbala’s sons and brother were killed in the overthrow, and his wife is in hiding in Kenya. Bartlet offers the president asylum, but Nimbala returns to his torn country, to be executed moments after getting off the plane.

The coup leaders enact a brutal ethnic cleansing of the Induye minority. Intelligence reports put the death toll close to 25,000 by the episode “Inauguration (Part I).” It rises to 115,000 when speechwriter Will Bailey (Joshua Malina) has the president ask “Why is a Kundanese life worth less to me than an American life?” in an address to the nation.

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Bartlet dispatches the military in “Inauguration: Over There (Part II),” and curtly informs the Kundu’s Ambassador Tiki that American troops have taken the airport, giving the Kundunese government 36 hours to hand over their weapons before they run their flag up the capital city Bitanga. During the battle, three U.S. soldiers are taken hostage, and Kundun President Nzele demands immunity and $500 million for their release. While preparing the rescue, in “The California 47th,” 17 American personnel are killed when their staging base in Ghana is bombed.

Narrowly Avoiding a Cold Turkey Crisis

Regardless of how poisoning may play in political maneuvers overseas, a deadly dish prepared by a U.S. president, on the same day he’s pardoned a big bird, is not the American way. In season 3’s “The Indians in the Lobby,” Bartlet doesn’t know if a stuffing made of caraway seeds, thyme, cornbread, oysters, water chestnuts, and andouille sausage can cook inside a turkey, or will kill his guests. Toby mumbles something about people getting sick, but the president thinks he may be messing with him. Leo isn’t sure if he agrees, but part of the job of a chief of staff is also to mess with the chief executive.

If only there were an 800 number to call for emergencies like this, the most powerful person in the modern world ponders. Charlie, of course, is a more recent study of America’s history, and suggests the Butterball turkey hotline, one of the few things which cause the president to proclaim “God Bless America.” POTUS experiences first-hand the greatness of the common American people. He is put on hold. Though he has to brush up on his impromptu incognito on-the-go skills, Bartlet gets excellent advice, and doesn’t kill anyone with Thanksgiving dinner.

By the way, the voice on the hotline was done by an uncredited Ana Gasteyer, no stranger to finicky cooks and dangerous culinary secrets. Her first onscreen job was in the “Soup Nazi” episode of Seinfeld. Next!

Biohazard Alarm Locks Down The White House

In “The Crackpots and These Women,” from the first season, Josh turns in his National Security Council-issued safety card because he doesn’t think the end will come by nuclear attack. He tells C.J. it will be delivered in a box containing something as simple as smallpox, an eradicated disease no one has immunity to, and barely any antidotes are stocked. “No Exit,” from season 5 shows The White House response to a possible air-borne biochemical agent.

President Bartlet returns from the Correspondents Dinner, where he proclaims to everyone how well he did so adamantly it almost becomes state edict, when Deborah Fiderer (Lily Tomlin) complains about an allergic reaction affecting her eyes. She describes an annoying encounter at the dinner where she was sprayed with a particularly obnoxious perfume. When the motorcade empties the staff into the offices, a foreign substance is detected, setting off the White House biohazard alarm.

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Over the course of the security lockdown, Bartlet is told of a chemist being watched by the FBI for trying to acquire hazardous materials from the CDC. The episode vaguely corresponds to an anthrax threat during the Bush administration. For those on lockdown, the incident is passed off as a drill, of which Bartlet had been aware, they are told. But we overhear Agent Butterfield promise the president that tularemia won’t get through again, which could mean security only told the staff it was a drill to be nice.

An Executive Order for Execution

In season 4, Bartlet authorizes the kidnapping and ultimately the death of the Qumari Defense Minister Abdul ibn Shareef (Al No’mani), brother of the Sultan of the fictitious country Qumar. Intelligence finds Shareef also leads the terrorist group Bahji, which plotted and attempted, but failed, to blow up the Golden Gate Bridge. Because the chain of evidence was extracted by torture, the criminal attempt can never be brought to trial.

Shareef is first mentioned in the season 3’s “The Black Vera Wang,” and by the next episode, “We Killed Yamamoto,” Bartlet, McGarry, and Fitzwallace are already plotting ways to remove him from power. During the season 3 finale, “Posse Comitatus,” Bartlet decides to ignore Executive Orders against assassination. An American agent, going undercover as “Jamil Bari,” pilots Shareef’s plane back to Qumar, and fakes mechanical difficulties in order to force an emergency landing on a Royal Air Force landing strip in Bermuda. U.S. Navy Seals execute Shareef and his two bodyguards on May 22, 2002.

The secret assassination continues to move action over the following seasons, culminating in a presidential family member’s kidnap, Bartlet’s temporary resignation, and the installation of an Acting President, Speaker of the House Glen Allen Walken, played by John Goodman doing his best Lyndon B. Johnson. When asked by a reporter if he regrets Bartlet’s secret order to assassinate a Qumari terrorist leader, Walken retorts, “My regret is that we only got to kill the bastard once.”

The President’s Daughter Is Missing

President Bartlet’s worst nightmare is not being shot. He worries about it, but not nearly as much as he does about an attack on his daughter Zoe (Elisabeth Moss). This is a sentiment shared by the Secret Service, who is scared of Zoe. In the very first season, Bartlet lays out his most feared scenario: Zoey being kidnapped at a party attended by too many guests, too afraid or distracted to see dead agents, and whisked away to a foreign country where she will be used to blackmail America into begging Israel to release prisoners, and be met with an answer of “We don’t deal with terrorists.” Then America doesn’t have a president, it has an anguished father in no condition to control himself or run a country.

It may seem a bit overplayed, though not by Sheen who glides through soliloquies like this expertly, but this is almost exactly what happens at Zoey’s graduation party in the season 4 episode “Commencement.” Not only does the president devolve into the hopeless parent, it happens when Vice President Hoynes is sidelined by a sex scandal, and the country is run on an interim basis by the Speaker of the House, Glen Allen Walken, a Republican in Democratic White House.

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Walken is being called “Presidential looking” by the middle of “Twenty Five,” the season’s finale. That is in itself a crisis to the Bartlet administration. Walken gives the F.B.I. one day to find the kidnappers or he will give the order for a retaliatory strike. “But if Zoey Bartlet turns up dead,” the interim president promises, “I’m going to blow up something. God only knows what happens next.”

High-Level Leak of Space Technology Secrets

Toby Ziegler may be the kid in class with his hand raised that no one wants to call on, but when called to testify, he balks. While there is foreshadowing of the communication director’s loose interpretation of words in season 1 when he has to give back $120,000 he made in inadvertent tech stock insider trading, it gets much worse in seasons 6 and 7.

The International Space Station is damaged, losing the capability to produce oxygen for the astronauts, and time is running out. Bartlet is subtly reminded of the existence of a top-secret military space shuttle. Not quite so top secret to Ziegler, whose scientifically brilliant late astronaut brother was privy to the information, and occasionally hinted, as competitive family members do, about its existence. Regardless of their national origin, Toby feels the pain of the men trapped on the space station personally.

The president does not launch the shuttle to save the astronauts out of fear it will come out that the shuttle exists in the first place. The story gets leaked to The New York Times White House reporter Greg Brock (Sam Robards), who goes to jail to protect his source. When investigators begin to suspect newly installed Chief of Staff C.J. Cregg, Toby admits he leaked the information, is dismissed from his job, and is sentenced to prison. The leak of top-secret information by a senior staffer at the White House is vaguely similar to the Valerie Plame affair.

Taiwan Strait Chess Match  

In “Hartsfield’s Landing,” season 3 episode 14, a Chinese airplane accidentally crosses into Taiwanese airspace, bringing the U.S. to the edge of conflict with the two Eastern republics. Bartlet responds by playing simultaneous games of chess, on ornate boards recently gifted in a trip to India, with Sam and Toby. The matches are more than allegories for the wily test of brinksmanship the president is playing with the Chinese government, which is conducting apparently not-so-secret war games in the Taiwan Strait.

While the small talk in Toby’s match, set in the Oval Office, focuses on the folksy character Jed is projecting on the stump trail, Sam’s game mirrors the situation in the waters between China and Taiwan. Sam sacrifices his queen but maneuvers himself into checkmate, while the president pawns a few Aegis Destroyers for the win. Simple horse trading saves the day, and the face of all nations.

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“See the whole board,” Bartlet tells Sam, encouraging the young assistant communications director to prepare for his own run for president.