Last year was a big one for the 25th Amendment — and not just in relation to discussions over the current occupant of the White House. The amendment, which celebrated its 50th anniversary since officially being ratified in 1967, establishes a clear line of succession should the president be unable to fulfill his duties due to death, illness, or other circumstances. To date, the 25th Amendment has been invoked six times, most notably in 1974, when Richard Nixon resigned from office and Gerald Ford served out the remainder of his term.
In the present day, though, the most memorable invocation of the 25th Amendment has to be by the Josiah Bartlet administration in the Season 4 finale of The West Wing. Written by series creator Aaron Sorkin, “Twenty Five,” which premiered May 14, 2003, finds television’s finest fictional POTUS (played by Martin Sheen) strong-arming his cabinet into replacing him with the Republican speaker of the House, Glen Allen Walken (John Goodman), after the youngest Bartlet, Zoey (Elisabeth Moss), is kidnapped by terrorists, affecting her father’s ability to govern. “He understands that, as a father, he’s not going to deal clearly in the interests of the nation,” Sorkin says now of the memorable episode, the last one he wrote for the series. “It’s a sacrifice, but one he makes easily and quickly.”
Behind the camera, Sorkin says, it wasn’t easy for him to exit The West Wing on such a show-altering cliffhanger. Not that leaving was entirely his decision; creative clashes with NBC sparked his departure, along with that of regular collaborator Thomas Schlamme. Veteran producer John Wells took over in their stead and wrapped up the search for Zoey, as well as Walken’s short presidency, in the first two episodes of Season 5. “I didn’t want the new group to have to face a blank page,” Sorkin says. “In pool, it’s called the leave; I wanted to give them a good leave, so that when they came in to work, there was already a problem to solve.”
Obviously, the circumstances under which Bartlet invoked the 25th Amendment were drastically different from our present political landscape. Those calling for its use right now commonly point to Donald Trump’s mental state or questionable business ties as affecting his actions in the Oval Office. Furthermore, the presidency also would remain in Republican hands, since both Vice President Mike Pence and the majority leaders of both congressional houses belong to Trump’s party. Sorkin admits that he sees little chance of life imitating art, however much a significant portion of the country may hope otherwise. At the same time, he feels that if Trump did opt to follow in Bartlet’s footsteps, it could be a happy ending for all concerned. “If there is one way that Donald Trump could rehabilitate his image and redeem his entire life, it would be if he said, ‘You know what? I think there’s something wrong, and I think I’m not of sound mind and I want my Cabinet to invoke the 25th Amendment.’”
Beyond questions about his fitness to serve, one of the long-standing issues surrounding the Trump administration is the regular presence of his family in the White House. The Bartlet clan similarly proved to be a steady source of drama throughout The West Wing’s seven-year term, although as Sorkin notes, apart from first lady Abbey Bartlet (played by Stockard Channing), the three grown daughters weren’t part of the administration. “It wasn’t a family-run dynasty, the Bartlet administration,” he says. “At its heart, the show was about two things: a workplace drama set in a very interesting workplace, and also a family drama about a man and his adult children, including staffers he was a father figure to, like Will, C.J., and Toby.”
Speaking of Toby — as in Toby Ziegler, Bartlet’s communications director (played by Richard Schiff) — he’s the unexpected link that bridges the 15-year gap between “Twenty Five” and Sorkin’s just-released directorial debut, Molly’s Game. In one of the episode’s most emotional moments, Toby visits his newborn twins in the hospital and names the boy Huck and the girl … Molly. No, Sorkin didn’t realize that he’d one day be telling the life story of real-life “poker princess” Molly Bloom with Jessica Chastain. The other Molly — who’d be a teenager now — was named for heroic Secret Service agent Molly O’Connor (Kimberly Bigsby), who died during Zoey’s kidnapping. “How about that for a coincidence,” Sorkin says, chuckling. If you ask us, it sounds like a West Wing spinoff waiting to happen.
The West Wing is currently streaming on Netflix. Molly’s Game is now in theaters.
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