‘West Wing’s’ Scarlett and Rhett finally do the deed
Wouldn’t you think the people who work in the White House would have more important things to do than worry about their love lives? They do, of course, which is why NBC’s multiple Emmy Award-winning “The West Wing,” which will air its final episode Sunday night, was such a tasty blend of the personal and the political. Whenever the threats of foreign antagonists, the pushiness of special interest groups or the general intractability of the opposition party reached headache-inducing levels, respite could be found in what girls and boys in close proximity tend to do.
Sigmund Freud said, in so many words: Work and love, that’s what it’s all about. So it shouldn’t be surprising that, the intrinsic sexiness of agricultural subsidies notwithstanding, the subject that fictional President Bartlet’s real constituents found most compelling was the he-loves-her, he-loves-her-not relationship between two White House staff members.
“From the beginning, we got more questions about what was going to happen to Josh and Donna than anything else in the show,” consulting producer and writer Lawrence O’Donnell said. “This year, we got more questions about what was going to happen to Josh and Donna than who was going to win the election.”
Quite a few “West Wing” couples could have been busted text-messaging each other sweet nothings between national crises. But Josh and Donna were the long-running Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler of prime time, the largely self-thwarted lovers whose destiny the audience never doubted.
Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman, played with disheveled, understated brilliance and a pinch of arrogance by Bradley Whitford, hired Donna Moss as his assistant during Bartlet’s first presidential run. She’d arrived in New Hampshire full of idealism and ambition, then actress Janel Moloney brought sweetness, humor and intelligence to the character over the series’ seven seasons.
The couple was inspired by a White House press secretary and his assistant who never did date, although it was obvious to everyone in their ZIP Code that she was in love with her highly eligible boss. The forbidden love between Bartlet’s press chief, C.J. Cregg, and reporter Danny Concannon was also inspired by a real couple: Dee Dee Myers, press secretary in Bill Clinton’s first term, and Todd Purdum, former New York Times White House correspondent. They married in 1997, but, Myers said, “we never dated till after I left the White House. In real life, it would have been impossible.”
Such is the peculiar sociology of the nation’s capital. Ana Marie Cox, who wrote the D.C. gossip blog as Wonkette and the novel “Dog Days,” about sex and power in Washington, knows it well. “It’s a workaholic town,” she said, “so people tend to date within the office, more so than in a lot of other cities. No one here knows anyone except from work, and the people who live here lack the skills necessary to have traditional relationships.”
Donna was a recognizable type, the assistant/office wife, who, like everyone in Washington, has one eye on the up escalator. Josh was an archetype too: the successful, monomaniacal professional whose personal life is a mess. “He’s a perfectly drawn character,” Cox said. “I think I know him.”
Donna is so familiar with the perils of their workaholic environment that, after she and Josh become lovers, she demands that he define their relationship. He says he’ll think about it. “The thing is,” she told him, “there’s a window. I say four weeks.”
Donna’s ultimatum perfectly defined the Washingtonian habit of giving lasting love a low priority. “There’s a continuous sense of urgency here, if you buy into it, there’s always something more important than a personal life,” Myers said. “What happens to most people is they either get off that train and get a life or they continue to mess up their lives.”
Counting two years of campaigning and two Bartlet administrations, in real time, the spark that ignited when Josh met Donna smoldered for a good 10 years before any sexual fireworks exploded. On television, sexual attraction has historically worked best by remaining latent. It’s usually the kiss of death when friends, enemies or co-workers in a series get horizontal. (See “Moonlighting,” “Cheers,” “Who’s the Boss?” and “Ally McBeal.”)
Even with their shared zeal for politics, Josh and Donna’s happy ending was far from a sure thing. In early scripts, the banter between Donna and Josh wasn’t particularly flirtatious. Glibber than thou, a specialty of “West Wing” creator Aaron Sorkin, was simply the local dialect. “The credit for the Josh-Donna magic goes to the actors,” producer O’Donnell said. “The audience was interested in them, rooting for them to get together, years before a romantic word passed between them. Every pilot season, every network is looking for that Tracy-Hepburn thing. They’re constantly trying to pair actors in new shows and pre-package chemistry. We just got lucky with two magical actors.”
The magic was so potent that over the years fans regularly stopped Moloney on the street and interrogated her about Donna’s love life.
Whitford said, “What surprised me was the vehemence and frustration people expressed in line at Starbucks, as if I had control of what my character did.” During the shooting of one of the last episodes, the actor’s 91-year-old mother asked him how his day had gone. “Great,” Whitford told her. “I spent the day naked, in bed with Janel.”
“Well, thank God you finally slept with her,” his mother replied.
Whitford understands that “The West Wing” wasn’t meant to be a civics lesson. “The show was fun because we were just trying to tell good stories in a wonderful, untapped arena that had not been taken seriously. Without that personal connection, which is primary and overwhelmingly necessary, you have C-SPAN. Aaron watches for what’s working, and he brilliantly exploited the chemistry between us.”
After Sorkin left, the series’ new behind-the-scenes commander in chief, John Wells, told Moloney that whenever Josh and Donna got together, the show would be over. So she dated others. (For a Midwestern good girl, Donna got around.) Even Josh had a flirtation or two, and one serious relationship.
Was their finally becoming a full-service couple realistic? “It happens,” Cox said. “Senators do marry staffers, and congressmen especially. Newt Gingrich did it twice.”
And when it doesn’t, fear of the appearance of impropriety is more often the culprit than the sort of emotional constipation Josh suffered from. O’Donnell, who’s been an advisor to the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Democratic chief of staff of the Senate finance committee, said, “No one working in the White House can afford the idea that they got where they were because of a personal relationship. It’s very, very difficult between a boss and a subordinate. There have been many secret relationships because no one wants anyone to think they’re either exploiting or benefiting from an intimate relationship.”
Josh and Donna’s denouement includes an appropriate element of wish fulfillment. She is recruited to be the incoming first lady’s chief of staff, a position that places her on turf that’s separate, but complementary, to Josh’s. Everything ties up neatly.
That’s only fitting because “The West Wing” has always been a feel-good fantasy of Washington, where those who govern are well-meaning, friendships are mostly true and hope springs eternal that there shall be liberty and justice for all.