C. J. Cregg and the Illusions of The West Wing

Twenty years ago, the fictional press secretary was the heart of Aaron Sorkin’s political drama—and the embodiment of a time when news sold the myth of an ordered world.

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In April 2016, when press briefings were still a regular element of the American presidency’s relationship with the American public, reporters who had gathered in the White House briefing room found themselves addressed by a surprise substitute. In place of Josh Earnest, President Obama’s press secretary at the time, a different briefer strode into the room to take the lectern: Allison Janney, who played The West Wing’s press secretary, C. J. Cregg. “Josh is out today,” Janney joked, as fact and fiction blurred and reporters went with the gag. The actor, it would turn out, was there to raise awareness about the opioid epidemic in America; after a brief speech on that subject, she was joined by Earnest. The fictional press secretary and the real one jockeyed, jokingly, for the mic. The argument that ended the tussle came from Earnest, and it was quietly brutal: “This is not your show anymore,” he told the actor.

Earnest was, in more ways than he could have known at the time, correct. The West Wing always tangled, teasingly, with reality: It did that when it made its premiere 20 years ago, at the tail end of the Clinton presidency, and it does that still, as it takes a second life on Netflix (and on its reality-tangling podcast, and in a world in which many find comfort in the show’s woozy romanticism). When people discuss The West Wing today, they often talk about it as a fantasy, and the assessment is equally applicable as a compliment or an insult: To watch the show is to indulge in a very particular kind of nostalgia. It is also, however, to be reminded about the environment C.J. Cregg, in particular, inhabited and shaped—a serialized object lesson in how utterly the news itself, which was always a preoccupation of The West Wing, has slipped the bonds of the show. C.J. was, in some ways even more than the president she served, the public face of the Josiah Bartlet White House. She was the translator who brought that administration’s decisions and revisions to the public. Twenty years later, she is also a revealing reminder: This really isn’t her show anymore.

There are no predictable days in the White House, The West Wing made clear, but C.J.’s day was structured nonetheless—by morning papers and evening news shows, by afternoon press briefings, by an informational environment that was, very much like The West Wing itself, episodic in output. There are only so many inches in the newspaper; there are only so many pages in the magazine; there are only so many minutes in a newscast—even when the broadcast in question runs 24 hours a day. In 1999, those constraints shaped the way politicians and the public related to each other. And you see them again and again in C.J.’s early story lines, when she served as the Bartlet administration’s press secretary: her concerns about sharing information with news networks early enough for the networks to convert the information into news; her use of Friday news dumps (an early episode was given the revealing title “Take Out the Trash Day”); her repeated refrain, at the end of her press briefings, “That’s a full lid, everyone.”

There are no full lids anymore. And that’s only in part because there are, practically speaking, no real press briefings—no real press secretaries—anymore. The presidential statement—the kind of message that C.J., Toby, and Sam might craft for President Bartlet, over the course of several drafts—now gets sent from a phone, without much evident deliberation but with, occasionally, evident typos. And the news itself, today, often manifests as feeds and flows and streams and storms: a hectic flurry of information that arrives at people’s doorsteps disheveled and disorderly. The news of this moment is not contained. It is not containable. This is a good thing—the chaos comes in large part because there are more voices in the mix, more people sharing their stories—but it can also be an overwhelming thing. The media and the public are still figuring out how to navigate it in a way that ensures the important stories don’t get lost in the tumult. What a week today has been, the joke goes, and it has been going that way, with ever more relevance, for years.

To watch The West Wing is to spend time in a different paradigm—to be whisked back to a moment when news still gave the illusion of orderliness. The show was always selling a soft-lit fantasy, a romanticized idea of what government is and can be; it was premised on the bold notion that bureaucracy could be made interesting. The news itself, the construct, was an element of that bureaucracy. The West Wing was a rapid-paced, orchestral-scored, soap-operatic answer to one of those inspirational posters that might have been mocked in Office Space, which had premiered earlier in 1999—a show dedicated to the notion that teamwork makes the dream work. It took for granted the idea that people are most compelling when they are constrained within systems—the logic of the ensemble cast serving a political argument.

That assumption, in its historical moment, was at once radical and fitting. The West Wing premiered just at the moment when American media were being shaken out of their earlier habits. The show was grappling with the ascendancy of cable news (CNN had been founded in 1980; Fox News and MSNBC had made their debuts in 1996). It was reckoning with the emerging demands of digital news. (Remember Lemon-Lyman.com?) The show cared deeply, in its way, about the consequences of the shifts that were taking place around it—about the transformations to come in the new millennium and the new ways Americans would have to learn about themselves and their place in the world.

And the show did much of that caring through C.J. Through her, in particular—through her concern about being honest with the news reporters who double as her colleagues; through the stands she takes in arguing for the principles she believes in—the show posits a world whose messy truths can be made sense of. That is part of its gauzy illusion. C.J. may be sarcastic; she may be, every once in a while, cynical; but she believes, at her core, in the power of shared facts, of shared information, of the common story. “We have an enormous pulpit,” she reminds President Bartlet, when he wants to shelve a report attesting to the power of sex-education classes in schools. And then: “Mr. President? We can all be better teachers.” During a military showdown between India and Pakistan, she reminds her assistant: “In the next few weeks it’s going to be important for the president to reassure Americans and the world that he has a firm grip on the crisis and is working hard to defuse it.”

The show’s paternalism is there in those comments. But so is its earnestness. Here is C.J., living in the pre-post-truth world. Here she is, caring about facts and their consequences. In West Wing–focused shows that would come after The West Wing itself—among them House of Cards and Veep—press secretaries are often dismissed either as duplicitous or simply as dupes. They are belittled in ways that call to mind the current presidential administration’s attitude toward an independent press. C.J., though, was her show’s moral center. And the news itself, similarly, isn’t an enemy or a mockery in The West Wing; it is an environment that encompasses—that implicates—everyone. It is a schedule. It is a shared reality. “Let’s show the two minutes before and after what we see on CNN,” The West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin described the show’s premise recently. It’s a small promise, in a show that made melodrama of democratic norms; it is also part of the fantasy the show was selling.

The West Wing played out in episodes, organizing its action around a few intersecting storylines; the news once did that, too. The “news story” was its own kind of illusion. It was always too easy. It was never enough. But it pretended to be. “That’s a full lid, everyone,” C.J. Cregg said, and for a while that was supposed to mean something.