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CJ Cregg: The Smartest, Funniest, Saddest Girl in Dayton

Big Bird and CJ sit side by side on a bench, looking at each other

I’ve been putting off writing this article on Bartlet White House Press Secretary (and later Chief of Staff) CJ Cregg for years now, and the reason for my procrastination has simply been—what’s there to say about her that hasn’t already been said?

Sure, I could rant for a couple thousand words about my love for her, throw in some character analysis, and we could all go home. But The West Wing has been over since 2006, and people smarter than me have been talking about CJ since then—from her wit to her style to how great she is in bed. I wanted to say something new. Then I finished one of my regular rewatches, and my regular rage hit me when it usually does…and then I knew what I was going to say.

It’s not like post-Sorkin CJ was done the dirty the way Toby Ziegler was. That’s Macho Grande…I’ll never get over it. Hell, John Wells as showrunner made CJ Cregg Chief of Staff. To paraphrase Will Bailey, on behalf of himself, the Vice President, and every man who’s ever had a Wonder Woman fantasy, it was a bright day. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Claudia Jean Cregg is one of the greatest female characters ever written. Whether she’s briefing the White House Press Corps, falling on her face on a treadmill while trying to flirt, fly fishing, or doing “The Jackal”, this creation of Aaron Sorkin’s, brought to life by the inimitable Allison Janney, dominates whatever room she’s in, and not just because she’s tall. She’s the public face of the Bartlet White House, surrogate daughter to the President, and for seven seasons, she brought grace, wit and humour to the show and my TV.

Allison Janney has said that CJ Cregg is her favourite role she has ever played, and it’s easy to see why. “She’s a wonderful character who is not afraid to speak truth to power, and is a woman in a traditionally male-populated arena in the White House, and she was given the President’s ear. It’s a great role to champion women. Whenever I’m asked, she’s the one I most want to be like and the most I’m not like.” (Allison Janney, Entertainment Weekly)

CJ Cregg addresses the crowd from the stage at a Rock The Vote show at The House of Blues

During the hardcore lockdown days of the pandemic, a bunch of like-minded friends and I kept ourselves amused by doing Zoom readings (I think a lot of people did this), and our wheelhouse of choice was always West Wing episodes. I was usually our default CJ, so I got to spend a lot of time inside her head, and it was an honour, and I’m not going to lie, it was intimidating. Sorkin dialogue has a particular music to it, and pace, and if you can’t wrap your head and mouth around his language, the words are going to eat you up. Obviously the stakes weren’t high for Zoom readings among friends, but still, it was CJ Cregg, and I wanted to do her justice. I also got to step into her shoes (they were platforms that gave me an additional five inches, and I still didn’t make Janney’s 5’11”) at West Wing Weekend, a fan-run convention that we threw in 2018. Among other things, the immersive-type event featured a staged reading of the episode “Isaac and Ishmael”. Even in an amateur, unofficial capacity, it was a privilege to have Sorkin words coming out of my face.

Aaron Sorkin has said that he doesn’t write for men or women, he writes for people. Sometimes this works for him better than others. His detractors have often called him sexist, and I can understand why, though I don’t agree. Anyone who creates CJ Cregg is an ally, as far as I’m concerned. Sorkin’s view of life as a white male might be limited, but he tries and he learns, and for that, I give him credit. He based CJ on Clinton Press Secretary Dee Dee Myers, and he was smart enough to have Myers work on the show as their primary political consultant. She was able to give perspective not only into the politics, but being a woman in that world, and I think her help made all the difference. She was gone after Season 6, and maybe they didn’t think they needed her anymore, but I don’t agree with that either.

CJ Cregg puts up with a lot, and plays a lot of different roles, though her title (at first) is Press Secretary. She’s one of the boys, for all that no one, including her, is ever allowed to forget that she’s a girl. She’s got to take the occasional sexist comment from one of her colleagues in stride, and she does so because, as Ainsley Hayes puts it, it’s an inadvertent show of respect that she’s on the team (“Night Five”, S3E14). And she’s smarter and funnier than most people, so she can give as good as she gets anyway. What I love less than the sometimes sexual remarks are the sometimes patronising remarks. In “The White House Pro-AM” (S1E17), the President is unclear on whether or not he really wants CJ to handle something involving the First Lady, or if he just wants it on the record that he said so, but he doesn’t really want her to handle it. One by one, she goes to her male counterparts for advice, and one by one, the best they have to offer is “you gotta learn to read the signs, CJ.” Not really helpful, gents.

Toby, CJ, and Josh stand listening to the President, looking amused

Being a member of Team Bartlet can be tricky when you are also Team Press Corps. Not only that, she’s kind of the captain of Team Press Corps, the two teams occasionally have conflicting interests, and CJ has to walk that line. In “Lord John Marbury” (S1E11), the President, Leo, and Toby make the choice to keep CJ in the dark about troop movement in Pakistan, because they think she won’t be able to lie to the press. She is offended by this, and rightfully so—“Either I’m a valued member of this team or I’m not.” Toby especially is upset for having hurt her feelings, but it’s more than that. Would he have made this professional choice with a male colleague? Would he have worried about hurting the feelings of a male colleague? Of course she can lie to the press. Later, in Season 2, when talking to White House Council Oliver Babish (Oliver Platt), it is revealed that she has lied to the press about the President’s health many times, calmly and coolly.

One of the things that impresses me most about everyone in Sorkin World (and especially his White House) is their ability to compartmentalise. Everyone manages to keep their professional and personal relationships beautifully separate, most of the time, even on those occasions when those lines are a little less distinct than they might be.

In “Dead Irish Writers” (S3E15), the First Lady (Stockard Channing) invites CJ, Amy Gardner (Mary Louise Parker), and Donna Moss (Janel Moloney) to slip away from her opulent birthday party, and have a quiet drink in the Residence. It’s a terrific scene, with four fabulous women in ball gowns getting boozy together. They’re talking about how Dr Bartlet is going to be affected by the President’s censure, and how she feels about having to give up her medical license for a year.

Abbey asks CJ what her problem is (it’s actually an exchange I love—Abbey says that women always worry about their husbands overshadowing their careers, but hers got eaten, and CJ comes back with “your husband got eaten?” and the explanation that she’s on Dangling Modifier Patrol—I’m always delighted to see a fellow member of the Grammar Police at work), and CJ asks Abbey if she’s First Lady right now. She says, “Sometimes you like to talk, and I think that’s great, but sometimes you’re Abbey, and sometimes you’re my boss, and I respect both very much.” Clever, that. CJ knows when it’s time to set boundaries. Other times it doesn’t work so well, and First Lady denies her cider (the cider-denying is because Dr Bartlet can’t actually get at the unnamed sources in the press who are making her crazy, so punishing CJ through apple products is as close as she’s getting). CJ has to take it all in stride. (“Manchester Part 1,” S4E1”)

Four women in formal attire sit around a coffee table in a sitting room, holding wine glasses

Speaking of S4—everyone knows that Aaron Sorkin left the show after the Season 4 cliffhanger. Lord knows I wouldn’t have wanted the job of writing my way out of the corner Sorkin had written the show into. As it happens, writing them into a corner wasn’t his intention—in fact, quite the opposite. In his Master Class, he says that he deliberately set up the end of S4 the way he did so that the new team would have something solid to work with. I believe him, of course, but before knowing that, it always felt a bit like “write your way outta this one without me, I dare you!” to me. They solved the problem of Zoey Bartlet’s kidnapping neatly enough and life went on, but for those of us watching closely, there was a shift in the tone of the whole show.

All of a sudden Toby was quoting Shakespeare every five minutes (when he had never done that before), as if the writers needed to demonstrate how literate he was. They even had episodes with Shakespearean titles. I’ve got nothing against the Bard, but it was a little heavy-handed…plus, I missed the references to Gilbert and Sullivan, and random musicals that the Shakespeare quotes replaced. Those were great, because you either got them or you didn’t (and you didn’t miss anything important if you didn’t get the reference), and they were these subtle little Easter eggs for theatre nerds to enjoy. The new regime eventually found its legs and became enjoyable, but there is a stretch in S5 that is as dry as melba toast, and more often than not, I skip it when I rewatch (all policy, very little personality, and for a non-politico like me, this kind of thing is what kept me from watching the show for so long in the first place). Also, the final episode in that stretch (E7 through E15, in case you’re interested) makes me rage—and this is what I was talking about way back at the beginning.

In “Full Disclosure”, former Vice President John Hoynes (Tim Matheson, playing a skeeze for the umpteenth time in his career) announces that he is coming back into the spotlight with a tell-all book, and one of the things he is telling is about the one-night stand he had with CJ ten years ago. Say what? Okay, she wasn’t crazy about Hoynes in S1-4. But neither was anyone. She’s had scenes with him, she’s had scenes in which she talks about him, and I’ve looked closely for signs on rewatches, and nope, I still think this came completely out of left field and was completely out of character for her. I can buy that ten years ago a person made a mistake that she wouldn’t make today, that she regrets. Hell, I’ve done that. Did they want to get a sex scandal closer to the Bartlet White House than what we had already found out about Hoynes in S4 (and of course there is no way the writers could slap Jed Bartlet or his wife with such a thing)?

Toby (Richard Schiff) and CJ (Allison Janney) walking through a West Wing corridor

I can even buy CJ even coming close to falling for Hoynes’s charms…but ultimately saying no. You want to talk sexist? I think they wanted to do the sex scandal thing, and CJ got saddled with it because she’s the woman. Sorry, Team Wells, but that’s how I feel about it. In another example of “throw this at CJ because she’s the woman”, there was also a whole episode in which CJ’s sexuality is under public debate, which I suppose, people being people, was bound to happen once she became Chief of Staff and that much more visible (“Faith Based Initiative”, S6E10).

Janney carries all of it off, of course. And her scene in which she confesses her mistake with Hoynes to Toby (their friendship is one of my favourite in the history of television) is another in a long line of heart-melty CJ/Toby scenes. And of course, she tells Hoynes at the end that if he does go through with the book, she will be standing with all the other women he’s slept with, telling the world what a skeeze he is. And she is strong and mighty, and her voice rings as inspiration to every woman who has ever been literally screwed by a man in power. There’s no way CJ Cregg is going to let herself be slut-shamed, and because of her, he backs down, we never hear about the book again, and all those other women are spared (not to mention Mrs Hoynes). It’s a question I would love to ask Aaron Sorkin—if he had still been writing her, would CJ have slept with Hoynes ten years ago. I could be wrong, but my money has always said no. And Sorkin is not the type of writer who makes a habit of retconning stuff.

Here’s the other thing I think Sorkin would have handled differently—Danny Concannon (Timothy Busfield). Sure, I was as happy as anyone to see him and CJ finally get together by the end of the series, although, as much as she may have complained about being a woman in her prime (and great in bed, remember), how much did CJ really need a boyfriend? How able were any of them to have social lives outside of work, really? And, as Toby points out to her toward the end of the series, she constantly has a room full of reporters to flirt with, plus the men she works with. It’s not like she’s starved for male attention, albeit a different sort. The thing is, she spends her days working with these super smart, super capable, and pretty cute guys, and for them, she doesn’t have to explain her day, because they were part of it. It’s hard to find a guy who is going to measure up to that Borg collective of men in her life. Danny is actually a good choice—he’s there, but he’s not part of the inner circle, yet he knows what her life is.

CJ, wearing a Notre Dame baseball cap, leans over Danny in his seat on Air Force One, as he grins up at her

It was a long time coming, and they were adorable, and anyway, he was one of my big West Wing crushes…at least, Sorkin Danny was (and Sorkin Dannys, like Sorkin Charlies, are always the guy with the clue). Wells Danny was a bit of a different story. When he comes back in Season 7, CJ is Chief of Staff, and the Bartlet Administration is on its way out. CJ is busier than she has ever been (or will be again) in her life. It’s very sweet when he suggests that if they are both going to jump off a cliff (honestly, the number of men who want her to jump off cliffs for them is staggering—the President said the exact same thing when he asked her to be Chief of Staff), why don’t they do it holding hands. But let’s be real, it’s not like they’ve ever had a chance to date like normal people, nor really get to know each other outside of this high-stakes environment. And I could let all that slide, I really could, especially when Timothy Busfield is as cute and charming as ever he was. However.

Once he gets the initial being sweet out of the way, he is just so damn pushy about it. She tells him right off the bat that she wants to “suck every morsel of meat off this experience” while she still can. He’s waited this long, what should a few more months til she leaves the White House be? It’s not like she isn’t coming over and sleeping with him, because she is (her Secret Service detail must love that). Why is he pestering her to tell him about her day? I’m sorry, my guy, but she is physically and emotionally exhausted, and she’s been talking to people all day, and I wouldn’t want to talk more when I got home either. Every time I watch this, I get reminded of when my daughter was a baby and I was nursing her. I would feed her for the last time, get her to sleep, and then my then-husband would get all indignant because I didn’t want to cuddle with him. Sweetie, it’s not that I don’t love you, but I literally just got my body back into my own possession. I don’t even want to pet the CAT right now, okay? And I feel like Sorkin Danny would have understood this. After all, he was the one who gave Charlie Young (Dule Hill) the very sage dating advice, when things weren’t going well with Zoey, “If it was me, just for now, I’d make sure I was the one guy in her life who was hassle free.” (“The White House Pro-AM”, S1E17) Yes, it is often easier to give great advice than to follow it yourself. But still.

Back to Press Secretary Problems—some of the time, it is CJ’s job to stand there and neutrally report news she finds upsetting, or even repellent. Never mind that owing to her father’s lack of advancement in his field, she’s got a different view on affirmative action than most Democrats (“The Two Bartlets”, S3E12). It’s when issues pop up in the Middle East that this really becomes a thing. None of her male coworkers are as affected by the arms sale to Qumar as she is—this is a country that makes a habit of treating its women brutally. I always think it was very clever of Sorkin to have made the National Security Advisor a woman as well, especially in times like this (“The Women of Qumar”, S3E8).

CJ looks upset as she talks to Nancy McNally

We don’t see Nancy McNally’s (Anna Deavere Smith) methods of coping with this kind of thing. She’s got years of military training under her belt, and her coping is private. For CJ, it’s out in public for the world to see, and she’s got reporters asking her for her personal opinion on the thing. Sometimes she’s able to rein it in (“You know, if I was living in Qumar, I wouldn’t be allowed to say ‘shove it up your ass Toby’. But since I’m not—shove it up your ass, Toby.”). Sometimes—not so much, and the result is a story arc involving death threats and Marc Harmon. I get why she wants to shrug off the Secret Service protection (a woman in a man’s job doesn’t want to appear even a little bit weak), and I also get why the close-up stalker photos of her with her niece make her change her mind.

The thing I love most about CJ Cregg is her optimism. Faith, hope, evidence of things not seen, whatever you want to call it (she mentions once that she’s Catholic, but it doesn’t come up much, and anyway, that’s not what I’m talking about). Maybe it’s because she came to politics later than Josh, Toby, and the rest, and isn’t a lawyer—before she joined the Bartlet campaign, she worked in Hollywood, in public relations. But for whatever reason, she doesn’t have the cynicism that almost everyone else in Washington has. She’s the one who thinks that voting by hand in Hartsfield’s Landing is nice as opposed to hinky. She’s the one who tells Toby that she has faith not only in them, but in many others like them, even after they all just got shot at (again) (“Evidence of Things Not Seen”, S4E20). She’s the one who tells a fretful Josh that in the unlikely event of a smallpox outbreak, in the days when we don’t have a vaccine for that anymore, we’ll simply make more vaccine—and then she’ll go home to research how to save the wolves (“The Crackpots and These Women”, S1E5). It’s a small thing, but she’s the one who reminds the President to take his vitamins when he’s walking around with the flu (“He Shall, From Time to Time…”, S1E12).

Her optimism, and the optimism of the Bartlet White House, can be summed up with the end of Season 2’s “The Stackhouse Filibuster” (the last heartwarming episode right before the world explodes with the MS disclosure, and it will be a cold day in Hades before I can watch it without crying). The day has been saved by Donna’s sharp eyes and a parade of grandfathers, and when CJ wraps up the story in the email she is writing to her father, she says “…tonight I’ve seen a man with no legs stay standing, Dad, and a guy with no voice keep shouting, and if politics brings out the worst in people then maybe people bring out the best, ‘cause I’m looking at the TV right now, and damned if 28 US Senators haven’t just walked onto the floor to help.”

I think that’s all I came here to say. There’s a meme I see going around sometimes that compares her favourably to certain other famous women, and while I won’t say which ones in the interest of not putting down one woman just for the sake of complimenting another—in a world of just about everyone, to be a Claudia Jean is a pretty good goal.

Written by Cat Smith

Cat Smith is the reigning Miss Nerdstiles, having inherited the crown from absolutely no one, because she made it up. She is an actor, a musician, a cosplayer since before they had a word for it, and a general nuisance (General Nuisance *salute*). She and her ukulele have charmed the collective socks off of LI Who and LI Geek, ReGeneration Who, WHOlanta, Potterverse, Coal Hill Con, Time Eddy, MISTI-Con, Hudson Valley Comic Con, Wicked Faire, SqueeCon, The Way Station, and The Pandorica Restaurant . She has written for "Outside In" and "Why I Geek" (among others), and you can find her music on bandcamp at Consider supporting her continuing adventures by becoming a patron at

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