Toby Ziegler is exiting "The West Wing" with his head held high.

The man who plays him, Richard Schiff, is leaving with no small degree of bitterness and recriminations.

To hear Schiff tell it, he and Toby are the victims of corporate politics.

Speaking to TV critics before the current TV season began, the actor charged that the outspoken, liberal Toby was falling prey to unnamed executives at Time Warner. "You feel this corporate shadow constantly suppressing and regulating and watching over, especially for the character Toby, who is somewhat conscience-driven and dynamic in his opinions. You just feel the suppression."

Yet when asked to provide any examples — even one — of that suppression, Schiff demurred. "It's more subtle than that. Please be careful how you express this because it's not a direct control. But it's their show. They own it and they have influence on it. They have influence on the budget, and they have influence over who's in the show and they have influence over, I'm assuming, what stories they want to tell and how we tell them."

At the same time, however, Schiff insisted that executive producer John Wells had gone above and beyond the call of duty in protecting Toby. "John Wells is actually protecting me, and quite valiantly, and really wants me to be a part of this show. And so we've come to an agreement to do a few shows this year."

Those "few shows" are about to come to an end. After six-plus seasons of playing White House communications director Toby Zeigler, the character has admitted that he was the source of a leak of national security secrets to the press — and he's about to be fired by President Bartlet (Martin Sheen).

There's some speculation as to whether Toby actually did it or if he's taking the fall to protect other White House staffers and the presidential campaign of Democrats Matthew Santos (Jimmy Smits) and Leo McGarry (John Spencer). But however it turns out, Toby is looking pretty noble.

Schiff, on the other hand, surprised critics with his bitterness. And refusal to back up his charges. "Toby is going to be — through a mutual consent, really — phased out of the show this year. I mean, I've had enough. And also, I think they're more than happy to have me have had enough.

"I think that's partly from Warner Bros. and whoever runs the show over there. Who knows what the reason for that is? I mean, when I go across America, people are in love with this character. But there is this, I guess, pressure to relieve him of his voice. And so where is this coming from? I'm guessing it's coming from some suit somewhere up there."

Strange, but he sure didn't make it sound like this was "mutual consent." And, while it was all well and good to warn us to "be careful" how we write about this, the fact is, Schiff repeatedly insisted he and his character are the victims of unnamed corporate executives who did things he could not or would not delineate. "No, I don't want to go to that place, because that's a more personal battle between me and whoever. It's just — it's an obvious relationship," he obfuscated.

It's also a fact that "The West Wing" is a show very much in transition. The focus since midway through last season has been on the campaign to elect Bartlet's successor, and Bartlet and his staff have been de-emphasized. And it's been clear for several seasons that a big effort has been made to control costs on the show, which were out of control under creator and former executive producer/writer Aaron Sorkin. And one big way to cut costs is to phase out characters played by actors who make big money and replace them with new actors and new characters.

Even Schiff acknowledged that TV production isn't all about art. "I never quite realized what a factory this industry really is until I directed ("West Wing" episodes), and then I knew what budget restraints were. . . . We're in a bottom-line culture right now. And more money can be made if it's quicker, faster. And in the days of Aaron Sorkin, it was very expensive because his artistic process demanded more time and more exploration by us all. And so that has been eliminated."

There's a reason it's called show business.

If you've got charges to make, make them specific. Don't throw unsubstantiated mud at unnamed targets, dirtying a lot of innocent people in the process.

And leaving yourself the most mud-spattered of all.


E-mail: pierce@desnews.com