Of Jackals, West Wings and Owning It

The West Wing is one of the greatest TV shows. The dialogue and characters are an endless source of delight and inspiration. This is a look at the greatness of two West Wing actors: Allison Janney and Rob Lowe.

CJ Cregg is a life-changer. Smart, sassy, articulate, capable, confident, and in no small measure magical, she is one of the best and most loved characters on The West Wing. Now gentle reader, I am fully aware that actors are not the characters they portray. Yet listening to a Nerdist podcast interview with Allison Janney (who played CJ) on my morning commute this past Wednesday, I was struck by how far Ms Janney feels herself to be from CJ. It’s fair to say she is riven with self doubt.

“My insecurities haunt me forever,” says Janney. She goes on to describe her contribution to this podcast as “going into a self-conscious shame spiral.” Now that’s not how I heard it. She is charming in this chat. But it’s uncomfortable to hear her so uncomfortable and so apologetic for what she sees as her shortcomings. The host – Chris Hardwick – is a consummate professional, guiding her through a difficult conversation, and providing encouragement. I love Hardwick’s gentle advice on battling insecurity:

“Our insecurities create a lot of vulnerable and false things about us. The way to combat that is just own it. The less apologetic you are… it’s honest, it’s authentic.”

Gymnastic dismounts, insides, outsides and living with integrity

On the journey home that same day, I listened to Ms Janney’s former West Wing colleague Rob Lowe, talking in the same podcast series. He is a sharp, witty and seemingly very self-assured gent.


“No West Wing without Aaron Sorkin,” says Lowe, referring to The West Wing’s creator and author of the most hug-yourself-at-its-brilliance dialogue you could hope to hear. “I had to audition for the West Wing. I had to work for that. Brutal. [It has to be done] exactly the way he [Sorkin] makes it. It’s sort of like a gymnast when they do the dismount. If you fuck it up at all, it’s over. And it has to look effortless and easy.”

But for all his accomplishment and apparent self-assurance, it seems Mr Lowe, too, has battled for years against his insecurities.

“People would say: ‘You need to work on your self-esteem.’ And I’d be like: ‘Great! That sounds good. No argument here. How do I do that? Do I do push-ups? What exactly do you do?’”

Very few people can ever answer this. But Mr Lowe has a go:

“It’s taken me honestly until 51 years of age to get what that is. If you’re doing anything that isn’t being esteemful to youself, that isn’t living with integrity [Italics mine], you’re always going to have a problem with your self-esteem. It’s about day-by-day-by-day making the right choices.”

Now why didn’t podcasting exist when I was a teenager, and could have seriously done with hearing just these words?

I love what Lowe has to say about not judging people on our own external perceptions of them:

“Never compare your insides to someone else’s outsides.”

This calls to mind the great words of my Twitter friend Warren Whitlock:

“Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.”


You’re tweeting me during The Jackal?

I want this post to help spread the love for both CJ and for Allison Janney. Every time people on Twitter talk West Wing, CJ emerges as the favourite character. So I asked a few of my Twitter friends to share their favourite CJ moments. But before that, I’m going to get The Jackal out of the way.

Now Twitterers: What’s your top CJ moment?

David D’Souza: The Jackal is too obvious so I’d go for this scene. Lovely interplay.

Katie McNab: OMG. Where to start? How about Eggs vs the Vernal Equinox? CJ meets Big Bird? Pardoning the turkeys? Or this: Josh: I really think I’m the best judge of what I mean, you paranoid Berkeley shiksa feminista! Whoa, that was way too far. CJ: No, no. Well, I’ve got a staff meeting to go to and so do you, you elitistist Harvard fascist missed-the-dean’s-list-two-semesters-in-a-row Yankee jack-ass! Josh: Feel better gettin’ that off your chest there, CJ? CJ: I’m a whole new woman. Josh: You look like a million bucks, by the way. CJ: Don’t try to make up with me.

I also still use the phrase “this is sort of my field” at least once a week.

Charu Malhorta: CJ explaining to Josh why Internet forums are crazy & banning him from them & her yelling at him when he smirks re her being more junior than him. CJ calling out the female reporter who was terrible about actual political stats & consistently called her out about her dress changes. CJ’s face & retort: “It’s a dress!” CJ on fire at the podium when she rips into Quamar for being an USA ‘friend ’ yet letting 11 girls die in a fire for their dress sense. CJ & big bird sitting next to each other, just because I adore it.

Sukh Pabial: Where she owns this reporter, that’s pretty cool.

#Bartlet2016: Talk to me like I’m not an oncologist
The West Wing may be over and done. But the West Wing lives on in 2016. There is speculation that President Obama was channelling The West Wing’s President Josiah Bartlet in his call for a campaign to end cancer in his 2016 State of the Union address (Bartlet’s moment of inspiration for which gifted the world my favourite West Wing line: “Talk to me like I’m not an oncologist.”).

And with a US Presidential election looming, it is heartening to see there is a #Bartlet16 hashtag. Just look at the great folks backing #Bartlet16 – please consider casting a vote Josiah’s way this November.


What’s next?

UPDATE (Saturday 30 April 2016): CJ Cregg returns to the White House!

Is the #Bartlet2016 now starting to have a real-world impact? I am so delighted to see this video of CJ Cregg crashing a press briefing at the real White House this week. Bartlet to announce he’s running next?

Essential viewing:

  • The complete West Wing Every moment, every sumptuous line of dialogue.
  • The Social Network This was my own gateway into the work of Aaron Sorkin. The intrigue, ambition and betrayal of the rise of Facebook, through the medium of dense and beautiful dialogue, and a visual style that would also be the underpinning of the monumentally great House of Cards.

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