Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Season 1, Episode 11: "Lord John Marbury"

Plot summary
: The Kashmir border powderkeg becomes more explosive when the Indian army invades Pakistani-held territory, making the threat of a nuclear confrontation frighteningly real to President Bartlet, who calls in Lord Marbury, an eccentric British diplomat with ties to both warring nations - and a weakness for booze. An angry Josh is subpoenaed to testify as the investigation into substance abuse among White House staffers grinds on towards its inevitable target: chief of staff Leo McGarry. Mandy floats a trial balloon among the staff to test their reaction to her notion of representing a liberal Republican. The President is surprised when Charlie asks him if he can date his willing daughter Zoey.

Click here to watch "Lord John Marbury"

Av --

It's time for me to reconsider some of my positions. First of all, I've gone from liking Mandy (briefly), to feeling indifferent about her, to now feeling what I believe is the common attitude: strong dislike. The qualities that would have made her a strong character, most notably her ability to get under Josh's skin, would've been more interesting to watch if she'd have stayed in her role as adversary. As an ally that often takes the adversarial approach, she's just irritating. On a more substantive note, while I was moved by the amount of personal emotion on display in the previous episode, this episode's attempt's to do the same fell kind of flat. I guess I'm thinking most about C.J.'s storyline, though I'm very pleased that her toeing the line vis-à-vis her Danny relationship is being noted and taken into consideration. While Toby may have been harsh with how he broke the news to her ("You sent me in there uninformed so that I'd lie to the press." "We sent you in there uninformed because we thought there was a chance you couldn't."), he really didn't owe her an apology for keeping her in the dark, even if the Danny issue didn't exist. Frankly, Leo's explanation to her is the best one: "You're gonna have to expect that sometimes." It's one of the perils of her job, and being the professional that she is, I thought she'd have handled it better.

One more thing that's bothering me: as this Leo crisis is reaching its boiling point, the last three episodes have made it clear that everybody is going to defend Leo to the death. Josh: "You're not gonna be taken down by this small fraction of a man. I won't permit it." Donna: "If one of us were in trouble, he would be the first person..." Sam: "Leo's in trouble... Your job isn't to end the fight, it's to win it!" The problem I have is that other than Bartlet - "You fought in a war, got me elected, and you run the country. I think we all owe you one, don't you?", we just take it as an article of faith that Leo is The Man who has done so much for all of them. While I have no doubt that it's true, the individual relationships they have with Leo - Bartlet excepted; who else but Leo could bluntly ask him if he has a problem with his daughter dating someone black - haven't been developed enough to make their attitudes as believable as they should be.

OK, I think I've buried the lede quite enough here, so let me get to the two things most interesting in this episode: Josh's deposition regarding Leo, and the India/Pakistan conflict. The reason I group these two together is they share a common theme: a conflict between two opposing sides, with lines clearly drawn and mediation proving difficult. What's striking about these conflicts, though, is how each is meant to be viewed. While we, as viewers, are naturally supposed to be "rooting" for Josh in his spirited defense of Leo and his stonewalling the man from "Freedom Watch," Harry Klaypool (not-so-subtly based on a real person, Larry Klayman), I found myself asking: who's actually right here? How can I agree with all these editorials condemning the Bush White House for its secrecy, but want Josh to cover up his "investigation"? If this were a real-life issue, I think the public would rightfully want to know about a rehab stint by a major White House official. The fact that we're trained to like Leo clouds our perception about who's in the right here. And as far as the India/Pakistan issue is concerned, I feel like Sorkin is basically daring the audience to pick a side. Each side has its case, and the United States is directly in the middle. (And it's nice to see Bartlet much more comfortable in the Situation Room. Speaking of, fair question by my wife: shouldn't the vice president be in these meetings? He's a crucial member of the national security team, and surely belongs in these meetings as much as, if not more than, the chief of staff. Could they not afford to pay Tim Matheson for the episode, or did they not want to offend him by giving him an episode with a non-speaking role? Discuss.) In any case, the India/Pakistan issue clearly mirrors so many other foreign issues, so I'm sure many people who follow one of any amount of foreign battles could relate to this one, and take a side. Wisely, though, Sorkin chooses not to take a side himself, and keeps the United States in the position of trying to find a solution without blaming a side, and I find an eccentric British diplomat (the Lord John Marbury of the title) as the voice of mediation an interesting choice, to say the least.

-- Binny


Binny --

Thank you for finally coming around on Mandy. I think one of Sorkin's greatest failings in the show was his inability to make Mandy into a tolerable character. Or maybe it's just Moira Kelly's fault. Yeah, lets' just blame her. That's much easier. Indeed, when Sam gives her an ultimatum, telling her, "Now you can work for us or you can work for them, but you can't do both," I found myself yelling, "work for them, work for them" at the TV screen.

As for C.J., I am usually not a big defender of hers as she tends to take things too personally and reacts emotionally instead of rationally to situations sometimes. Then again, she is a woman. However, in this case, although I may ultimately side with the men, I actually really do understand her argument. "Either I'm a trusted member of the communications staff or I'm not." Essentially, I think she's saying that if they can't trust her to use discretion with information and act professionally, then they should fire her and hire a new press secretary that they can trust. But so long as they're keeping her around, they have to treat her like she is a part of the team and in this case that means do not send her into the press room without the information she needs and make her look like a fool.

On the Leo front, yes, it does seem like the entire staff is willing to throw themselves in front of a bus for Leo and potentially risk the success of the entire administration to save his ass. Without dwelling too much on this point, they all have been working for Leo for well over 2 years by now (we're one year into the administration plus well over a year of the campaign plus transition), so it's not crazy to think that, especially given the close interpersonal nature of the way they work on a daily basis, his staff has developed an acute, fatherly sense for him and that they would be incredibly defensive if anyone tries to come after him. I think it's pretty reasonable to say that none of them would be where they are now if not for Leo, but trust me, we'll get some insight into all of their pasts at some time in the future. Maybe. As for the issue itself, I hear your point about the comparison to the Bush administration's secrecy, but I would respond to it by differentiating the substance of what it is that they're hiding. The Bush administration has been secretive about major things like the reasons for going to war and the use of torture, which are important components of American policy. The Bartlet administration is being secretive about the personal life of a staff member regarding events that happened six years ago when they weren't yet in office. Further, Klaypool and Lillienfield aren't doing this to achieve any sort of noble purpose or getting to the truth to improve U.S. policy; they just want to ruin Leo's name. I think you can just take that all into account, rest easy, and get on board supporting Leo.

Shani's question about the VP is a very good one, and unfortunately I do not have a good answer. My intuition tells me that the VP has to be there. And this isn't a one-time thing, either; Hoynes is rarely, if ever, together with Bartlet and Leo in the Situation Room. This feels wrong.

Finally, (and when I say "finally," I do not mean that the end of this response is coming soon) the India/Pakistan storyline really resonated with me, not because of the feud itself, but because of the way we saw it analyzed in the episode's final scene. "It's about religion." Hearing these words emerge from the mouth of Lord John Marbury was chilling to me during a week in which the fighting between Israel and Hamas in Gaza further escalated. More so, I have found myself thinking back to the series' 3rd episode, "A Proportional Response," for guidance during this ongoing escapade because that episode's central issue of "proportionality" lies at the heart of this latest military campaign, especially for those who have condemned it. Critics of Israel's response point to the sheer disparity in casualties as evidence of its illegitimacy, and in terms of pure numbers they have a very compelling point: the operation has taken the lives of hundreds of Palestinians, mostly civilians, and only a handful of Israelis. True, the citizens of Sderot and other Israeli citizens lived with the threat of constant rocket attacks, but the actual, real-world casualties resulting from these attacks were minimal. Thus, argue the critics, Israel's response has been out of proportion with the initial Hamas attacks and is therefore unreasonable.

I keep imagining President Bartlet sitting at a table of military advisers - or in this case, a table of Israel's critics - and simply asking, "What is the virtue of a proportional response?" He would continue to question the merits of a response that is anticipated by the enemy, that has been factored into the equation, and thus is nothing more than the "cost of doing business," as he calls it. In that episode, Bartlet ultimately relents to the advice of his national security team, who advocate a more pragmatic response than the "overreaction" he prefers because of the political and military implications. However, this begs the critical question: is "proportionality" a rule of strategy or morality? It is through both of these lenses that the Israeli campaign in Gaza must be examined.

In terms of morality, anyone who cannot distinguish between Hamas, who target civilians, and Israel, who targets military leaders and terrorists, is either intellectually dishonest, biased, or both. That being said, Israel's attacks, although targeted at guilty parties, result in massive collateral damage in the form of many innocent civilians. The problem with these attacks is that the resulting collateral damage is not a possible byproduct of Israel's actions, but rather a certain one. They remind me of the famous Talmudic expression in the realm of the laws of the Sabbath that alludes to a man who cuts off the head of a chicken and is then surprised at its death ("psik reishe v'lo yamut.") The death of innocent civilians is a definite result of Israel's air attacks and must be factored in accordingly; the fact that they were not intended is only slight relevant. And make no mistake about it: the loss of human life is a moral tragedy, no matter which side you're on. I think the distinction between Hamas's terrorist attacks and Israel's response can be analogized to the difference between the "intentional" and "knowing" standards in criminal law. Shooting a person without an intent to kill but with the knowledge that it inevitably will is surely better than shooting him with the intent to kill, but not much better; both are murder under the law. Still, the law provides justifications for murder, and self-defense and defense of others are chief among them. It is these defenses that lie at the heart of Israel's justifications for their attacks (as they are acting both responsively and preemptively to defend the lives of its citizens) and give them a firm moral ground to stand upon. I think.

The more pressing question about Israel's military response is with respect to its wisdom. Anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can discern a very clear formulaic pattern to the way it consistently plays out. It is a pattern that time and time again triggers a "cycle of violence," claims hundreds of human lives, and leads nowhere except right back to the status quo. If that is all this campaign accomplishes -- and history suggests that might be the case -- it will be a monumental failure. Thus, questioning the strategic wisdom of the campaign presents a far more compelling criticism than questioning its moral legitimacy.

So yes, there are potential moral (albeit, I think, shaky ones) objections and strategic objections (likely more compelling ones) to what Israel is doing. The main problem with Israel's critics - and I have read many of their writings the last couple of weeks - is that they have failed to articulate what would be an appropriate alternative response that would be effective in deterring Hamas, yet fall within the range of their moral compass. Diplomacy is a lost cause when the guy on the other side of the table rejects your right to exist and allowing Israeli citizens to live indefinitely with the fear that a Hamas rocket could strike its homes, school buses, and restaurants at any moment was simply no longer acceptable. So what else could Israel have reasonably done? This is the question I have yet to receive a good answer to. Perhaps people should spend more time answering questions than asking them of Israel. It is the Israeli generals' jobs to protect the lives of its citizens, not mine. So, given my very limited moral qualms to the campaign and the lack of a better alternative, I will defer to the wisdom and judgment of the Israeli generals. I think.

More and more, I have realized that the questions that this conflict presents have few concrete answers. How many civilian deaths are an acceptable byproduct of each terrorist death? Do the rules of proportionality and just war still apply when the enemy has launched what is by any objective standard a war that falls well outside the normal rules? How does a nation properly balance the lives of its citizens against the lives of its enemies' citizens? These are questions that pass way above the confines of my mind. The only conclusion that I have reached is that when it comes to this conflict, clarity is a vice: there are no clear answers here and anyone (on either side) that is able to achieve full lucidity on these issues is probably missing something.

Left without any true guidance from my brain, I turn to my heart: "He who blessed our forefathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob -- may He bless the fighters of the Israel Defense Forces, who stand guard over our land." May this violence come to a swift end and claim as few human lives as possible.

-- Av


  1. I would like to hear more from this "Shani" person, it seems to me that she has some very interesting insights into the show, Binny. You should mention your wife's comments more often. I was wondering the same thing about the vice president, the show seems to portray him as a completely separate entity from the president and the goings on at the White House. It seems that Sorkin wants us to believe that the Chief of Staff is the 2nd most important member of the administration; where does that leave the VP? I am unclear on the shows idea of the role the VP plays in the administration (especially when the President is as brilliant as Bartlett and can hold his own, as opposed to another president whose name need not be mentioned).

  2. I like that the President is able to say "My staff and I can't do this on our own. Let's bring in an expert." This is something that, to my understanding, President Bush couldn't do because of hubris or whatever other issues you can blame for his mismanagement errors. It's better to get the right people in to make the right decisions at the right time than to try to do it on your own, running the risk of being wrong.

  3. Michelle BernsteinJanuary 14, 2009 at 4:07 PM

    Binny made an excellent point regarding a presidential administration keeping secrets and Av did give a fair and adequate response. However, if such justifications for keeping information secret were to be decided on an individual case to case basis and not by some overall general rule, the results could be very bad for all involved. Obviously it goes without saying that information regarding a war versus past drug use or even current sexual escapades is more of a concern for the public, but I think there needs to be a hard rule on the issue of disclosure.

  4. Michelle BernsteinJanuary 14, 2009 at 4:16 PM

    Also, I know we are only 11 episodes in thus far and that Sorkin's original intention was to revolve the show around the President's inner circle rather than the President himself. So wouldn't it be A. more realistic and B. keeping with Sorkin's original idea for the President not to be around the Oval Office as much as he has been so far. I know we have seen some of this and I hope to see more in the future where there is a situation and the President is not in the Oval Office and can just easily run over to the situation room. A more realistic scenario would be to have him phone in at times as the responsibilities of the President exceed him always being present at his home base.

  5. I'm by no means an expert on this, but this is what I have gleaned from very limited research about why the vice president might not always be in on the military decisions.

    The role of the vice president within any given administration can vary greatly -- Dick Cheney on one said and . . . Chester Arthur on the other. Dick Cheney obviously had a huge hand in each and every decision President Bush made, and Chester A. Arthur was an empty shirt who pretty much liked the prestige of the vice presidency (until Garfield was killed, and oops, he became the decider).

    Because the only jobs the Constitution gives the vice president are a) breaking a tie in the Senate and b) taking over if the president dies or invokes the 25th amendment, the role of the vice president has been determined by each president and generally differently.

    I'd imagine the role of the vice president would be significantly diminished if, like with Hoynes, he was chosen less because his politics were in line with the president but more because he could help win a big state.

  6. Very interesting point, Amanda. That actually makes a lot of sense. Thanks for your input!

  7. Just curious when this was going to be updated...