They Said It on The West Wing

CJ Cregg at lectern

C. J. Cregg at the press-room lectern

Are you a Wingnut—that is, a person who still enjoys watching and discussing episodes of the TV show The West Wing more than a decade after the program went off the air? Do you know what the characters are going to say before they say it? Do you have entire conversations committed to memory? Have you ever asked, “What’s next, Mrs. Landingham?” for no particular reason? Did you view the film The American President multiple times so as to spot similarities with The West Wing in plot, script, and casting?

If so, you’re a little bit loopy—and I’m your lawyer. No, wait! Ainsley Hayes (played by Emily Procter) is your lawyer. I, on the other hand, am your grammar and pronunciation critic.

It’s been many years since I owned a television set, but once I discovered Netflix I quickly found my way to more than 150 West Wing episodes spanning seven seasons from 1999 to 2007. The series is so intelligent, witty, and well paced—particularly the first four seasons, before Aaron Sorkin and Tommy Schlamme left the show—it practically ruined me for other televised entertainment.

But I was ready to move on. Enough is enough, I thought. I tried to watch House of Cards—Netflix seemed to think I’d enjoy it—but House of Cards was too dark and took itself too seriously. The characters were amoral and scheming, and I didn’t care if they lived, died, or ate each other’s digestive organs for breakfast, much less gained positions of power and influence. I had the same reaction to Mad Men.

I had just settled in to watch the BBC’s Planet Earth when I learned of a new podcast, The West Wing Weekly. Podcast hosts Hrishikesh Hirway (Hrishi) and Joshua Malina (Josh, who played Will Bailey on The West Wing) were funny and charming, and they were going to devote an entire hour, once a week, to the discussion of a single West Wing episode. What could I do but go along?

When examining a program minutely, naturally you’re going to pick it to pieces. You’re going to recall your favorite moments, rave about the acting, and criticize the ways in which the TV show isn’t like Real Life. That’s what you do. “That could never have happened,” you think, forgetting for a moment that The West Wing isn’t a documentary. Hrishi once observed that, after Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman (played by Bradley Whitford) was shot and rushed to the hospital, he was removed from the ambulance head first, whereas an actual gunshot victim would come out feet first since the oxygen and other lifesaving equipment are kept toward the front of the vehicle.

SEXUAL HARASSMENT

PRESIDENT BARTLET: I like your sass.

C. J. You’ve got a very nice sass yourself… sir.

***

The argument starts when Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe) compliments Ainsley Hayes (Emily Procter) on her appearance—“Hayes, you could make a good dog break his leash”—offending office temp Celia Walton (Alanna Ubach), who upbraids Sam for what she considers a sexist remark. Also present are Charlie Young (Dulé Hill) and Ginger (Kim Webster). Ainsley—appealed to when she returns to the room—says flatly, “He’s not a sexist.” Celia presses the point.

CELIA: If you’re willing to let your sexuality diminish your power.

AINSLEY: I’m sorry?

CELIA: I said, I’m surprised you’re willing to let your sexuality diminish your power.

AINSLEY: I don’t even know what that means.

CELIA: I think you do.

AINSLEY: And I think you think I’m made out of candy glass, Celia. If somebody says something that offends you, tell them. But all women don’t have to think alike.

CELIA: I didn’t say they did. And when someone said something that offended me, I did say so.

AINSLEY: I like it when the guys tease me. It’s an inadvertent show of respect I’m on the team, and I don’t mind it when it gets sexual. And you know what? I like sex.

CHARLIE: Hello!

AINSLEY: I don’t think whatever sexuality I may have diminishes my power. I think it enhances it.

CELIA: And what kind of feminism do you call that?

AINSLEY: My kind.

GINGER: It’s called lipstick feminism. I call it stiletto feminism.

SAM: Stilettos?

AINSLEY: You’re not in enough trouble already?

SAM: I suppose I am.

CELIA: Isn’t the point that Sam wouldn’t have been able to find another way to be chummy with a woman who wasn’t sexually appealing?

AINSLEY: He would be able to. But that isn’t the point. The point is that sexual revolution tends to get in the way of actual revolution. Nonsense issues distract attention away from real ones. Pay equity, child care, honest-to-God sexual harassment. And in this case, a speech in front of the U. N. General Assembly. So… stop trying to take the fun out of my day. With that, I’m going to get a cupcake.

WHY WE DON’T LIKE MANDY

Mandy Hampton (Moira Kelly) lasts only one season as a White House media-relations consultant. Hard to believe, as she tells us early on how young and cute she is, despite having earned a bachelor’s degree in art history, a master’s degree in communications, and a Ph.D. in political science.

I’ve never seen this actor elsewhere; on The West Wing, at least, she’s shrill, abrasive, and self-absorbed. The writers don’t give her lines that are likely to endear her to audiences, but her delivery is alternately scolding and just short of hysterical. Here she is in repartee with Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff) and C. J. Cregg (Allison Janney):

MANDY: Are you listening to me?

TOBY: Yes.

MANDY: What was the last thing I said?

TOBY: The last thing you said was, “Are you listening to me?”

MANDY: You guys are idiots, did you know that?

C. J.: In our own defense, we actually do know that.

MANDY: Would you tell him that signing the bill and, thus, swallowing the bitter pill of strip mining would not foreclose a PR approach that would trumpet banking reforms while at the same time excoriating the special-interest strip-mining scam which, by the way, is what I am happy to call it? Tell him that.

C. J.: Toby, Mandy wants you to recommend to the president that we do it her way.

TOBY: Did you understand what she said?

C. J.: No, but she seemed pretty confident.

GRADUATING COLLEGE

West Wing First Daughter Zoey Bartlet (Elisabeth Moss) reminds her father that she “graduated high school.” White House Communications Director Toby Ziegler mentions that he “graduated college.” Zoey and Toby, both of whom are bright and well educated, surely meant to say “graduated from high school [or college]” but were, we suppose, distracted by a flying insect of some sort.

You can’t “graduate college” any more than you can “go college” or “arrive college.” In this instance, the verb “to graduate” is acting as an intransitive verb, and intransitive verbs cannot take on an object. —writersdigest.com Sept. 14, 2010

HOMAGE

Podcast cohost Hrishikesh Hirway is an accomplished musician and composer who comes across as brilliant, poised, and so likable that it made me a little sad to hear him mispronounce homage as oh-MAZH.

The Cambridge Dictionary gives the U.S. pronunciation of homage as HOM-ij, while the New York Times has this to say (nytimes.com, Nov. 5, 2010):

As with other leading American dictionaries, Webster’s New World currently recognizes two equally accepted pronunciations of the word: either HOM-ij or OM-ij. Since the pronunciation with “h” is listed first, that would favor “a homage” over “an homage.”

Refrain from saying oh-MAZH unless you are French and you cannot help yourself.

HISTORY, HISTORICAL

Numerous West Wing characters have been known to drop their H’s. To drop or not to drop—that is the question, as it pertains to the initial H in an English word. A pronounced H is said with a burst of sound, as in house, history, and high. People who would never say “an HIS-tor-y of Rome” may yet be heard to omit the H sound in a phrase such as “an ‘is-TOR-i-cal account.”

It is commonly noted in literature from late Victorian times to the early 20th century that some lower-class people consistently drop h in words that should have it, while adding h to words that should not have it. An example from the musical My Fair Lady is, “In ‘Artford, ‘Ereford, and ‘Ampshire, ‘urricanes ‘ardly hever ‘appen.” —Wikipedia

Don’t try to formulate a rule about this; it’s complicated, depending in part on how words entered the English language and what happened after they got here. It’s more a matter of custom than logic. For herb, the British pronounce the initial H—HERB. American-English–speakers say the older version, ERB, though to kill weeds they buy HERB-i-cide.

SHORT-LIVED

Eli Attie, a onetime West Wing writer and consultant, is a regular guest on The West Wing Weekly podcast. During one of his guest spots, he says short-LIVED with a short I, as in GIVE. Actually, the I in -lived should be long, as in HIVE.

PULITZER

C. J. pronounces this word PEW-litz-er. Josh and Hrishi discuss the matter at some length on a podcast episode. Hrishi reveals that the correct pronunciation is “PULL-it-sir,” and to make double-darn sure he telephones the Pulitzer offices to see how callers are greeted. If C. J. didn’t know better, someone else should have, wouldn’t you think—at least one of the other members of the West Wing cast and crew. Sigh.

PODIUM

Practically everybody on The West Wing says podium when they mean lectern or rostrum. You stand ON a podium and BEHIND a lectern, people. I have written (superbly) on this very topic; please see https://writingqueen.wordpress.com/2016/07/22/podium-vs-lectern/.

ERR

To err is human, but if you don’t want to compound your error, do not pronounce ERR like “AIR.” It should rhyme with FUR. It was Toby Ziegler who committed this solecism on The West Wing, and I still haven’t quite gotten over it.

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