Thursday, December 11, 2008

Season 1, Episode 2: "Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc"


Plot summary
: Despite warnings from fellow office workers, infatuated Sam presses his luck when he continues to publicly pursue a high-priced call girl with whom he shared a night of passion. Meanwhile, C.J. tries to defuse a potentially nasty public clash between the president and his willful vice president concerning the veep's quotes about a bill favored by the chief executive. Exasperated political consultant Mandy Hampton drowns her troubles when her only client ignores her advice and agrees to bottle up a key bill in committee that could have been costly for the president if put to a vote. The president forges a kinship with a young African-American Navy captain who's substituting for his regular White House physician - so much, in fact, that he asks him to assume the position on a full-time basis.


Watch "Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc": http://www.megavideo.com/?v=C6KXSXD0

Av --

Wow. I did NOT see that coming. The episode is moving along nicely, and then out of the blue... a crack about Yeshiva University?

OK, so I sort of did see that coming. I, like you, was in Yeshiva University's high school at the time this episode aired, so the fact that this small, unknown Jewish college (U.S. News and World Report top-50 ranking notwithstanding) was referenced in a network TV show made quite a few waves on campus. Though having Josh sarcastically pick Yeshiva University over the Cowboys overlooks the fact that YU doesn't have a football team, it is to Sorkin's credit that he can call up a joke like that and expect (or not care) that it will land with Middle America. There's the "New York humor" referenced in the pilot.

This episode felt like a second pilot to me. Its function was more about telling us about the characters (and in Mandy's case, setting up her future) than about advancing plot, at least until the dramatic final scene. But I didn't find it unsatisfying; on the contrary, I felt like so much was revealed about the characteristics of these people, even through minimalist stories. The best example I can think of is C.J. "She's a good girl," as Leo put it. The incident with the vice-president shed so much light on the kind of person she is. She was professional during the media briefing when she was blindsided with the potentially damaging quote from the VP. She was dignified in the way she confronted him, even opening with an apology for something that was his fault. And she was classy in the way she "took one for the team," trying to keep the incident away from Leo because Sam and Josh felt that was the best thing to do.

I also learned that though I have never accidentally slept with a prostitute, I find myself relating to Sam for some reason. There's the naivete you mentioned, but it's more in the way that his naivete breeds a certain stilted optimism I often see in myself. And I learned that Leo is not a politician you want to mess with. (I kind of figured that one out from the start, though. Anyone in his position who is willing and able to chew out a New York Times crossword editor should be automatically feared.) But obviously the person most ripe for analysis in this episode is the president. Earlier in the episode he says, "I'm not comfortable with violence. I know this country has enemies, but I don't feel violent toward any of them." He's intimidated by being in the same room with the Joint Chiefs. By that night (or, more accurately, early the next morning), it's, "I am not frightened. I'm gonna blow them off the face of the earth with the fury of God's own thunder." The contrast isn't subtle, and neither is the cause. The president's personal physician, a man he's come to like a lot, a new father, is senselessly killed in an act of terrorism. Hence the fury and thunder. But the question I was left with is what would Bartlet's response have been had the act of terrorism occurred but not involved someone he knew personally? Would he have felt the same way? I think that's why this episode is called "Post hoc, ergo propter hoc." Literally translated (and for the record, when trying to decipher the Latin, I pretty much said exactly what Josh did), the phrase is a logical fallacy: since one thing happened after the other, it was caused by that other thing. (I took my LSATs last week; I have had enough of causation/correlation.) Was Bartlet's sudden change of heart caused by the fact that someone in his life was killed? Post hoc, ergo propter hoc? He'd probably deny it; that's stuff for people like C.J. to believe. He'd insist that his response is objectively commensurate to the situation. But I'm not sure I'm convinced yet.

-- Binny

-------------------------------------------------

Binny --

That is an interesting question you raise at the end. The obvious answer is yes. Essentially, the explanation you offered would be that President Bartlet, the idealistic, sophisticated, nuanced thinker doesn't feel violent towards America's enemies and would probably favor a diplomatic approach to resolve most foreign policy situations when asked about it; Jed Bartlet, however, is a living, breathing human being whose friend was just murdered by terrorists and he wants vengeance. I think this a perfectly valid explanation for Bartlet's change in course during the episode and one I am perfectly willing to accept. I would like to offer another explanation, though, which I think draws on broader ideas of the presidency.

Often times, political leaders make statements on an issue during a campaign or even while in office, and then later either speak or act in a manner that contradicts their earlier statement. Political operatives would call this "flip-flopping" and more academic minds might attribute the change of heart to a reconsideration of facts and intellectual honesty, but I think there is a third possibility: the politician's perspective has changed. The best recent example I have of this comes from Israeli politics. Ariel Sharon was for years the darling of Likud and a vigorous champion of the settler movement, up until the moment he was elected Prime Minister, when he suddenly shifted gears and was the driving force behind Israel's withdrawal from Gaza and the removal of Israeli settlements there. Why the change in policy? The most likely answer, I think, is that Ariel Sharon, the Minister of Agriculture and Minister of Defense could cling to his Utopian idealism of the way he thought things ought to be. Prime Minister Sharon, however, confronted with the facts on the ground and the way things actually were, sitting in the Prime Minister's chair, ultimately decided that the status quo and the policies he had supported his entire political career were not practically feasible and in Israel's best interests, and thus promptly changed course. I think that could be what happened here, as well. It is very easy for Bartlet to speak of his lack of violent feelings towards enemies when he is speaking in the hypothetical. However, once confronted with the loss of American lives under his watch, whether he knew those people or not, the President has to do what he has to do, and sadly, in the world we live in, this usually involves violence.

Your insight about the episode's title was fascinating and one that had never occurred to me. Admittedly, if I had been at the meeting in the Oval Office, the number would have increased by one to 28 lawyers in the room that didn't know what "post hoc, ergo propter hoc" meant. My previous theory of how the title tied into the storyline of the episode has now been supplanted by yours, but I think mine is still thematically relevant.

I found this episode to be a commentary on the state of politics today and our tendency to focus on nonsense issues. In this episode, the White House senior staff deals with a cryptic quote made by the Vice President, the consequences of Sam's legal sexual encounter with a consenting adult, and a joke the President made that offended the Ryder Cup team. Indeed, it is not until the President rhetorically asks, "I've got an intelligence briefing, a security briefing, and a 90-minute budget meeting all scheduled for the same 45 minutes. You sure this is a good time to talk about my sense of humor?" that it occurs to anyone that maybe these "issues" are not appropriate ones for the people running the government to be focused on. Yet, our political discussions all too often revolve around nonsensical news cycles about lipsticked pigs, expensive wardrobe bills, and plumbers who are not actually plumbers. And it's these types of issues that dominate this episode until something real happens to remind everyone what they are doing there. If I was a right-wing Rabbi who believed that the world works in a certain way, I might explicitly declare "post hoc, ergo propter hoc," or whatever the Yiddish translation is: namely, that the tragedy at the episode's end happened because of the nonsense that we were preoccupied with and serves as a wake up call to remind us what is truly important. Thankfully, I have not been ordained and I do not share that view of the world's operation, but within the context of the episode's storyline, the same message rings true. The episode's culmination, for the first time, refocuses the characters on who they are and us, as the audience, on what we are watching: a show about the White House and the President of the United States, a place where real things happen, issues matter, and decisions affect people's lives.

-- Av

-------------------------------------------------

Av --

I agree that the issue of what constitutes an important issue is alluded to, but I don't necessarily agree that this episode concerned itself with extended focus on nonsense. For one thing, that "cryptic" quote by the Veep turned out to be a manifestation of increased frustration with the president and Leo, and I believe is an indicator of where they stand with each other and a potentially dangerous harbinger of things to come. (Oh, and try to resist the urge to use that as a springboard to go off on Cheney and vice-presidential power. It will be fun, I'm sure, but ultimately too distracting.) And the staff didn't so much "deal" with Sam's relationship as much as addressed it, and with extreme brevity. One meeting with Josh, one with Toby, two reluctant "just be careful"s. And actually, I found how they dealt with it to be of great interest, because in this day and age of YouTube and Facebook and no privacy in the public sector, there's no way Josh and Toby take that approach. I don't think the act of terrorism was a "wake up call" in the sense that "this is why we're here"; on the contrary, Josh's achievement in the morning (beating Lloyd Russell to keep a bill in committee, thus essentially keeping Russell at bay as a potential opponent) seems like a more standard White House event than having to deal with a terrorist act. Or at least that was the case before 9/11. I agree that the Ryder Cup storyline is representative of the kind of thing that we overvalue in terms of news importance, but on the other hand, these aren't people in the national security office. They are the communications team. They have to react ("play defense," as C.J. put it) when these stories are being eaten up by the media and the masses.

As for your approach to the question I raised about Bartlet's change of heart, I think you're right on. Too often we see things in black and white, including (especially?) politicians' stances. Since at some high levels, especially Congress, a stance is only reflected in a yes/no vote, it can be easy to see that as a flip-flop instead of a more nuanced change of perspective. (By the way, I think your explanation of this nuance is the same as the academics' "reconsideration of facts and intellectual honesty." Why did they reconsider the facts and change their minds? The new perspective.) I agree that a president can come in believing (and promising) that he won't raise taxes, and then circumstances cause him to change that belief (and break that promise). And there's no question there was a change of perspective for Bartlet. But my question about Bartlet the man still applies, and here's why. I could believe in non-violence as a response in foreign-affairs situations and then feel differently after being affected by something personally. It's human nature. But I also don't have the power to respond. If Bartlet only feels violent because of his personal stake in this tragedy, it's a sign of his inability to separate himself from his office. I'm not saying that's an automatic strike against him; we elect people in large part because of what we think of them as people, figuring that their character can and will influence the decisions they make in the office. But it's something I'd like to know.

-- Binny

-------------------------------------------------

Binny --

Your points are well taken. I agree that these issues are important as they relate to character development and furtherance of the plot, but looking at them in a vacuum as issues, these are not the types of things I would want discussed in the Oval Office or handled by the White House Chief of Staff in a perfect world. Sadly, the reality is that often enough politics is not about the issues and is instead about, well, politics. And I think Sorkin is definitely trying to highlight that point. I don't necessarily think he is going so far as to say these things don't matter at all and should be totally ignored, but I definitely think he is trying to contrast the triviality of the matters that we deal with in the episode's first 42 minutes and the one that surfaces in the last two.

As for my distinction between change of stance because of reconsideration and because of perspective, I think there is a clear difference. Altering your opinion on an issue is not the same as altering the way you handle an issue because of the position you now have to approach it from. The circumstances of the situation are not what have changed, but rather it is your circumstances as a politician that have changed. I could easily believe that Ariel Sharon fell into a coma still clinging to a deep personal belief in the merits of the settler movement and the ideal of Greater Israel and it is quite possible that Jed Bartlet still, in principle, is a anti-violence pacifist at heart. But the titles they own and the chairs they sit in don't allow them to always follow their heart; sometimes pragmatism trumps idealism. This touches on a greater theme that you addressed and one that we will continue to see Bartlet struggle with: the necessity of a president to separate between the man and the office.

I'm glad you mentioned Josh's triumph at the beginning of the episode because one of the things I hope to be on the lookout for in this latest re-watching is the Rahm Emanuel persona inside Josh's character. I wasn't aware of this nugget (Josh being based on Rahm) until last month, but already at the beginning of this episode, we have a clear example. On that note, was it just me or can you easily imagine Obama having precisely the same conversation with one of his aides or a military man he trusts that Bartlet has with Morris Tolliver? Bartlet is insecure because of his lack of foreign policy experience and has to be reassured that what he lacks in experience he more than makes up for with his intellect and judgment. Part of me wishes that we could have seen the president's relationship with Morris develop further, as one of the things Sorkin does best is showing the development and evolution of one-on-one relationships between his characters. Already in this episode, we get a few gems, most notably those between "bosses" and their assistants: the President and Mrs. Landingham, Leo and Margaret, and of course, Josh and Donna. Watching the dynamics of these relationships at play is truly one of the most enjoyable aspects of this show and one that I am sure you will love.

-- Av

-------------------------------------------------

Av --

I agree the contrast between trivial issues and important ones is striking, and presented in order to be striking. On the other hand, if that helicopter isn't shot down, there wasn't a bigger issue that day to distract them from the other ones. I've seen the footage of NBC's Today Show the morning of September 11th, 2001. Before 8:46, it was standard Today fare: a cooking segment, some shopping stuff, the usual. After 8:46, it was probably weeks, if not months, before they returned to the regular, "trivial" segments. In other words, it's all relative. Yes, the people who work in those offices are there for the big issues, but big things have to happen first.

In response to your Obama question, I have been holding myself back from any Bartlet/Obama comparisons (and I've been tempted several times already) until I get a better sense for both Bartlet and Martin Sheen's portrayal of him. But some thoughts have definitely been festering, yes. (Side note: Sorkin's already invaded my brain. I only used that word because of this back-and-forth from this episode: "In the event of a military coup, sir, what makes you think the Secret Service is gonna be on your side?" "Now that's a thought that's gonna fester.") And yes, I could totally see Obama having that conversation. But then in 2000, I probably would've said the same about Bush. As for Rahm Emanuel, I only know what I've read; I don't remember him or his persona well enough from the Clinton years to bring up any Josh Lyman comparisons. And you're right, I am starting to enjoy the one-on-one relationships, partly because it's something I enjoy in many shows. But it's also because I am a sucker for all things Kathryn Joosten.

-- Binny

4 comments:

  1. On the Obama note, it should be mentioned that Aaron Sorkin wrote what a hypothetical conversation between Obama and Bartlett would look like:
    http://www.nytimes.com/2008/09/21/opinion/21dowd-sorkin.html

    Also guys, if you write less, people will read everything you write.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I found this when I was reading the Aaron Sorkin facebook group message board (in which Sorkin answers questions about himself and his work, and I'm pretty sure it's really him), so I'm pretty sure you're going to have a lot more hits than usual.

    I, too, heard that Josh Lyman was based on Rahm Emanuel, and of course that made me fall in love with Rahm Emanuel. However, Aaron Sorkin debunked that on the facebook group, stating that he'd never heard of Rahm until he was represented by Rahm's brother, Ari.

    Here's the link to the facebook group so you can judge for yourselves whether it's really Sorkin.

    http://www.facebook.com/home.php#/group.php?gid=33807262256&ref=ts

    ReplyDelete
  3. Don't think that worked. You can just search Aaron Sorkin groups on facebook.

    ReplyDelete
  4. The link worked, thanks; I'm planning to join right away. Great to see a group like this - we love reaching new people.

    ReplyDelete