To try to divorce the speech of a man from its speaker, and the speaker from his audience, and the audience from the teeming world in which they live, is an errand so foolish Harpo Marx himself would gauge his options, open his mouth with a dusty creak and say, “Well that ain’t a job I’d much like to have there, Sparky.” Yet the citizen of this Earth who argues that words do not hurl themselves through history is one who has lost his way, straying far, too far, too far from the surest road. The light that comes from stars takes billions of years to reach us, fighting through the still yet changing universe to lightly touch our faces, and yet we doubt poetry? Not now. Not here, not now, not ever while blood moves through my veins. Here’s what my Great Uncle Algie used to say of ideas that impossibly foolish: “Wow, is that ever stupid.”
That’s my best Aaron Sorkin writing The West Wing impression. It is both too much and not enough. But when a writer with a gift for language, writing about a subject he knows well and reveres, lets loose, a lot of things can happen: brilliance, sure, but also excess; poetry, but also self-importance. Also, all kinds of things that haven’t aged all that well! Hence exclusively male pronouns! The word “feminista” is used by one of our heroes, non-ironically, twice, and while the first time he follows it with “Whoa, that was way too far,” it doesn’t stop him from using it again in the context of trying to woo Mary-Louise Parker! What a time.
During Sorkin’s tenure running the writers’ room for The West Wing—that’s seasons One through Four—the show returned to some familiar wells again and again. Anecdotes and stories leading to big revelations. Odd nicknames or titles used as punctuation. Flowery language preceding short, direct speech that sets off both. Iambic rhythm (though things rarely went full Deadwood and embraced pentameter) and repetition (“There was a ramp-up.” “There was a ramp-up!”).
Broadly speaking, it was a balance of undeniable earnestness and fast, sharp wit, elevated prose and simple speech. So when I set out to find the West Wing-iest lines in the history of The West Wing, that quality was crucial. But also crucial was that the lines, no matter how silly or overwrought they might seem on paper, actually work. Leo says things like “We’re not going to stop, soften, detour, postpone, circumvent, obfuscate or trade a single one of our goals to allow for whatever extracurricular nonsense is coming our way in the next days, weeks and months,” and it maybe sort of works. But while that could come straight out of Mad TV’s parody of the series, it’s not making this list, because the other key element is success. For four seasons, at least, The West Wing hit far, far more than it missed; for every “Isaac and Ishmael” or “Privateers,” there were four or five episodes on the level of “18th and Potomac” or “Mandatory Minimums,” and while far fewer reached the heights of “17 People,” “Noël,” or “Two Cathedrals,” the great still outweigh the terrible.
So I say to you madam, and I say to you sir, that this is a list of the lines (or exchanges) from The West Wing that seem to somehow capture its beating heart through use of the same 26 little letters, rearranged again and again, onward, forever, in this great country that we’ve built and keep building, together. (Now I just can’t stop, please send help.) I gave myself a few rules to help narrow things down, because like Aaron Sorkin, I often just can’t help myself:
—I only went through Season Four. There are good episodes and a few great lines after that (Glenn Close gets on the Supreme Court!) but the voice changed, there’s just no way around it.
—No more than one line per episode.
—No cheating by choosing an entire monologue, unless it’s necessary to have the whole monologue to appreciate the greatness of the lines.
—No formal speeches. The writing is so elevated that it would mean the list was all formal speeches. Just know that yes, I agree that “The streets of heaven are too crowded with angels tonight; is excellent.
—I could not include a just-okay Charlie line just for the sake of including the great Dulé Hill, because friends, Charlie is amazing and The West Wing done him wrong. He got some great scenes, and he got an Emmy nomination, but he was mostly there to set other people up for punchlines, be sad, and open doors. My short list had five separate Ainsley Hayes lines on it, and one from the first hot Republican that Donna dates, but not one Charlie line. The injustice, I tell you.
—No more than 10 choices.
So here are 13 choices. (In the spirit of true Sorkin excess, I broke those rules a little tiny bit). This is not the best of The West Wing, or the most famous or inspiring of The West Wing. It is the most West Wing of The West Wing. And yes, it contains Latin.
13: C.J. Cregg (Allison Janney), “Gone Quiet” (S3, E6)
“I’m too sexy for my shirt. Too sexy for my skirt. Too sexy for the other things.”
There are a couple reasons this is an extremely West Wing-y piece of dialogue. First, this show just loved having C.J. Cregg be awkward, but it also loved making her dance. Two birds. Second, it’s the result of a conversation she has with Carol where she’s trying to understand the meaning of Right Said Fred’s “I’m Too Sexy” (“So, it’s not a problem. It’s not a song about somebody having a problem.”) Third, and most importantly, it works because it was written for Allison Janney to do exactly what Allison Janney does—on the page, it’s just weird, but she adds those pauses and it’s divine. Bonus points for subsequent unnecessary “Oh me-oh, oh my-oh, oh Cleveland, Ohio!”
12: Leo McGarry (John Spencer) and Jed Barlet (Martin Sheen), “Lord John Marbury” (S1, E11)
LEO: “You’re really gonna let him loose in the White House, where there’s liquor and women?”
BARTLET: “We can hide the women. But the man deserves a drink.”
The second line has that iambic thing going, and it’s a sharp, clever piece of dialogue. Plus: They can hide the women! Yikes! It sounds like something from a Cary Grant movie, for better and worse. Extremely West Wing-y.
11: Bruno Gianelli (Ron Silver), “Manchester: Part II” (S3, E3)
“I’ve been thinking it might not be such a bad idea to lock you all in here and set the place on fire. We have 48 hours before we kick off this campaign. We will work hard, we will work well, and we will work together. Or so help me, mother of God, I will stick a pitchfork so far up your asses you will quite simply be dead.”
It’s that “quite simply” that elevates this. There are more famous Bruno lines, including a couple rants about what “liberal” means and a whole thing about kelp, but that “quite simply” is a perfect example of two unnecessary words making a line sound better and more interesting. Also: repetition, simple language heightened, odd punchline.
10: Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford), “Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc” (S1, E2)
“I drink from the keg of glory, Donna. Bring me the finest muffins and bagels in all the land.”
This is one of the more famous lines from The West Wing, and it is also one of the most West Wing lines from The West Wing. The act of celebration itself is a punchline—Mandy (remember her? No? Okay) has just been told that the “very serious men and women” up at the White House aren’t gloating over the win they just pulled out. And the “Victory is mine!” stuff is good. But the finest muffins and bagels? Who talks like that? The kind of people who say “Oh me-oh, oh my-oh, oh Cleveland, Ohio!” for no reason, that’s who.
9: Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff), “Twenty Five” (S4, E23)
“This isn’t gonna mean anything to you, but: Leo was right. Leo was right.”
The monologue that precedes this line—the “babies come with hats” speech, one of Schiff’s best moments on the show—is excellent, and maybe the finest piece of writing in Sorkin’s final episode. But the last moment, a callback to an earlier conversation with Leo, is really what seals the deal. Another staple of this show: lines that connect to earlier conversations which the episode feels so need to spell out explicitly.
8: C.J. Cregg, “Enemies Foreign and Domestic” (S3, E29)
“But ‘Brutus is an honorable man.’ Seventeen schoolgirls were forced to burn alive because they weren’t wearing the proper clothing. Am I outraged? No, Steve; no, Mark; no, Chris: that is Saudi Arabia, our partners in peace.”
This show had some episodes and storylines concerning Islam and the Middle East that have, to say the least, aged poorly, but this is a great scene. It becomes more interesting in context: C.J. tells Sam and Toby not to say anything to her about the death of the girls, so she can go in there and speak her mind while honestly being able to say she’s spoken to anyone in the administration. She’s overwhelmed with rage and determination, but before she enters the room, she shoves it down and waits for the right moment, several questions in. Janney is, as always, excellent.
As for the writing, it’s got repetition, a quote from Shakespeare, and a hard ending. All should be very familiar at this point. Might have been higher but it kicked off the storyline where C.J. gets a hot secret service agent (Mark Harmon) who she makes out with once before he gets randomly murdered. Not great, Aaron.
7: Ainsley Hayes (Emily Procter), “In This White House” (S2, E4)
“Say they are smug and superior. Say their approach to public policy makes you want to tear your hair out. Say they like high taxes and spending your money. Say they want to take your guns and open your borders, but don’t call them worthless. At least don’t do it in front of me. The people I have met have been extraordinarily qualified. Their intent is good. Their commitment is true. They are righteous, and they are patriots. And I’m their lawyer.”
The West Wing has (rightly) been called a fantasy, which is pretty sad, because all these characters are flawed, and the fantasy is that the White House would be filled with flawed, decent people who are passionate and devoted. It’s also a fantasy because a lot of the dialogue feels like stuff people could or would never actually say (more on that below). And then there are the hot Republicans who all mostly act like liberals. There’s Joe Quincy (Matthew Perry, who got two Emmy nominations for it!), Clifford Calley (Mark Feuerstein) and Jack Reese (Christian Slater), all of whom Donna either had the hots for or dated. And then there’s the best of them, Ainsley Hayes, who gets lines like “The same Article 14 that protects you protects me, and I went to law school just to make sure. And with that, I’m going back down to the mess, because I thought I may have seen there a peach.”
This is her second big speech, and while it’s not the funniest, it’s the best. Lots of repetition, “they are righteous and they are patriots,” and she basically outlines the whole fantasy of the show. Pure, nuclear strength West Wing.
6: Jed Bartlet, “Posse Comitatus” (S3, E22)
“In the future, if you’re wondering, ‘Crime. Boy, I don’t know,’ is when I decided to kick your ass.”
James Brolin’s Rob Richie was never all that interesting, if only because watching a fake George W. Bush on screen was no fun (even if he got his ass kicked). But this scene, which sees Bartlet decide to take the gloves off, is a doozy. C.J.’s hot Secret Service boyfriend has just been killed, we watch Bartlet try to take in Richie’s hollow response, he attempts to get the other man to reach higher (though he is admittedly kind of a dick about it), and when Richie declines, he trots out that gem of a line. Also, lots of “ass” and “asses” in this show. There are four in this list alone.
5: Jed Bartlet, “The Midterms” (S3, E22)
“Think about those questions, would you? One last thing: while you may be mistaking this for your monthly meeting of the Ignorant Tight-Ass Club, in this building, when the President stands, nobody sits”
Here’s the full text of that speech:
I wanted to ask you a couple of questions while I have you here. I’m interested in selling my youngest daughter into slavery as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7. She’s a Georgetown sophomore, speaks fluent Italian, always cleared the table when it was her turn. What would a good price for her be? While thinking about that, can I ask another? My Chief of Staff Leo McGarry insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2 clearly says he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself or is it okay to call the police? Here’s one that’s really important because we’ve got a lot of sports fans in this town: touching the skin of a dead pig makes one unclean. Leviticus 11:7. If they promise to wear gloves, can the Washington Redskins still play football? Can Notre Dame? Can West Point? Does the whole town really have to be together to stone my brother John for planting different crops side by side? Can I burn my mother in a small family gathering for wearing garments made from two different threads? Think about those questions, would you? One last thing: while you may be mistaking this for your monthly meeting of the Ignorant Tight-Ass Club, in this building, when the President stands, nobody sits.
There’s that West Wing fantasy I mentioned. (Also: another ass.) This would never happen. That party wasn’t off the record! No halfway decent American President would ever do something like this. Like the often shared (and often mocked) opening speech from The Newsroom, it feels like Sorkin had something to say, so for better or worse, he handed it to one of his characters, and damn reality. But it sure feels good to watch.
Anyway, onslaught of words, focus on rhythm, firm ending, “ass.”
4: Josh Lyman and Donna Moss (Janel Moloney), “17 People” (S2, E18)
JOSH: “I’m just saying, if you were in an accident, I wouldn’t stop for a beer.”
DONNA: “If you were in an accident, I wouldn’t stop for red lights.”
Confession: There are more West Wing-esque lines in “17 People,” one of the show’s best hours, including the line that lends the episode its title. At one point Bartlet says “And the walls came tumbling down. I feel fine by the way, thanks for asking,” in response to Toby shouting that there had been a coup d’état. It’s both very good and dangerously close to self-parody. But exchanges like that one also characterize The West Wing. Parallel construction, simple language, big emotional stakes delivered in a matter-of-fact way. Almost all the best of the show’s love scenes share those qualities. Toby and Andi. Jed and Abby. Charlie and Zoey. Josh and Mary-Louise Parker/Marlee Matlin/whoever else he briefly dated as they spun out the Donna/Josh will-they-won’t-they. C.J. and Danny especially. But of all the lovely exchanges between those pairs, this one is the best.
3: Toby Ziegler, “Five Votes Down” (S1, E4)
“There is literally no one in the world that I don’t hate right now.”
A line of straightforward, no-frills dialogue used as a punchline. A perfect marriage of actor and writing. A moment so precise and memorable that it’s the cornerstone of that Mad TV parody up top. A GIF moment from the days before GIFs. And the pauses, my god, the pauses. Perfect.
2: Leo McGarry, “Noël” (S2, E10)
“This guy’s walking down a street when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep, he can’t get out. A doctor passes by, and the guy shouts up, ‘Hey you, can you help me out?’ The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a priest comes along, and the guy shouts up ‘Father, I’m down in this hole, can you help me out?’ The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a friend walks by. ‘Hey Joe, it’s me, can you help me out?’ And the friend jumps in the hole. Our guy says, ‘Are you stupid? Now we’re both down here.’ The friend says, ‘Yeah, but I’ve been down here before, and I know the way out.’ Long as I got a job, you got a job, you understand?”
Josh tells the truth. Leo responds with an anecdote. It seems unrelated. Then the ending arrives and it’s like someone struck a gong. A pause, then the perfect, simple line: “Long as I got a job, you got a job, you understand?” The story only works with that last line. That last line only works as well as it does because of the story. The words seem unnecessary, but they’re not. Wonderful.
1: Jed Bartlet, “Two Cathedrals” (S2, E22)
“You’re a son-of-a-bitch, you know that? She bought her first new car and you hit her with a drunk driver. What, was that supposed to be funny? ‘You can’t conceive, nor can I, the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God,’ says Graham Greene. I don’t know whose ass he was kissing there, ‘cause I think you’re just vindictive. What was Josh Lyman? A warning shot? That was my son. What did I ever do to yours except praise his glory and praise his name? There’s a tropical storm that’s gaining speed and power. They say we haven’t had a storm this bad since you took out that tender ship of mine in the North Atlantic last year. 68 crew. Do you know what a tender ship does? Fixes the other ships. Doesn’t even carry guns, just goes around, fixes the other ships and delivers the mail, that’s all it can do. Gratias tibi ago, domine. Yes, I lied. It was a sin. I’ve committed many sins. Have I displeased you, you feckless thug? 3.8 million new jobs, that wasn’t good? Bailed out Mexico, increased foreign trade, 30 million new acres of land for conservation? Put Mendoza on the bench, we’re not fighting a war, I’ve raised three children… That’s not enough to buy me out of the doghouse? Haec credam a deo pio? A deo iusto? A deo scito? Cruciatus in crucem! Tuus in terra servus nuntius fui officium perfeci. Cruciatus in crucem. Eas in crucem! You get Hoynes!”
Bartlet says “feckless thug,” quotes Graham Greene, puts out a cigarette on the floor of the National Cathedral, calls back to events earlier in this season and the last, curses God in Latin—without subtitles, and then ends with a short, simple sentence that lands hard: “You get Hoynes.” There’s no topping that. How? How is that even a thing that happened on television? It should not work. It should not come close to working. It does. That’s The West Wing at its best.
Allison Shoemaker is a TV and film critic whose work has appeared in The A.V. Club, Vulture, RogerEbert.com, and other publications. She is also the co-host of the podcasts Hall Of Faces and Podlander Drunkcast: An Outlander Podcast, the latter of which is exactly what it sounds like.