Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Season 1, Episode 9: "The Short List"

Plot summary
: When a Supreme Court justice retires, President Bartlet has a golden opportunity to impact the court's composition by nominating a favorite judge - but when further study reveals the candidate's conflicting ideology and cloudy social affiliations, the President might change his mind and opt for another judge. In addition, a headline-seeking congressman on the House Government Oversight Committee accuses the White House staff of substance abuse - a dicey issue for one important member.

Click here to watch "The Short List"

Av --

There are many ways to tell a television episode was a particularly gripping one, and one of them is when you see the end credits and find yourself shocked that the episode is over. This was my experience at the end of "The Short List," though it's also possible my surprise is owed to the fact that this show has yet to have a major storyline extend over more than one episode, and the drug thing wasn't quite resolved. (I'm anxious to see how the staff - and/or Bartlet - is going to help Leo, who already seems defeated. Also, who cares if he had a pill problem 6 years earlier? He was treated and now he's sober.) This episode also keeps most of the focus on the primary story: the last-minute chaos surrounding a Supreme Court justice nomination. I think I enjoyed the subject material more than the ones involving the battles over legislation, because while, as someone who's historically been a casual observer of Washington, I'm not familiar with too many White House battles to get bills passed, I've certainly seen a fair share of Supreme Court nominations, and the battles contained therein. (I remember watching the Clarence Thomas vote live. I was 9, so my memories consist of small tidbits: being annoyed that the Pirates/Braves NLCS was on an off night, my parents obsessing over how Joe Lieberman would vote, and rooting for a tie.) What struck me most, I think, was just how many voices there are when a spot on the highest bench is open. It stands to reason; years can go by before another spot opens up, giving enormous weight to each selection. But consider the amount of people we see weigh in with their opinions: Josh, Mandy, Sam, Toby, the outgoing justice, the lead candidate himself (Harrison), and of course, Bartlet. The beauty is that the guy with the final say is the mystery man who sends Sam Harrison's "unsigned note" from his time at Harvard Law Review. Sorkin wisely avoided the scandal route, instead choosing a less flashy, but more realistic way, to ruin Harrison's nomination: political philosophy. (Very realistic, actually: the constitutional right to privacy, among other things, also sunk Reagan nominee Robert Bork.) The fact that the nomination instead went to the hardworking, unassuming underdog is just the icing on the cake.

I've been meaning to address this, so let me get it off my chest here. It's pretty obvious to anyone who's watched TV before that one can clearly see by now the beginnings of two future relationships that are inevitable: Josh and Donna, and C.J. and Danny. I think the Josh and Donna one can be very interesting, given their working relationship, and keeping in mind that Josh used to date Mandy. The C.J./Danny one annoys me to no end. Maybe it's because I find Timothy Busfield insufferable in every role of his, but I just do not like this one bit. It's a conflict of interest, one C.J. is too smart to indulge in, and I'm annoyed that we're headed down that road anyway.

-- Binny


Binny --

As a recent law school graduate, an episode about choosing a Supreme Court Justice, particularly one that focused on judicial philosophy, rather than other factors, is tremendously interesting to me. I'm sure you won't be surprised to learn that, unlike Justice Harrison, I firmly believe that there is a constitutional right to privacy. I never really understood the argument of so-called "originalists" in debates like this: namely, that the framers intended to limit our rights only to those they specifically delineated and that we are supposed to read the constitution in a vacuum, only focusing on its "original intent." Even in the context of canons of religious law, where one can argue the laws were divinely authored, or, at the very least, divinely inspired, I find this line of thinking difficult to accept. All the more so in the context of secular law, where certainly nobody would argue that James Madison's pen was guided by the hand of god. Sam's insight on this issue was fascinating to me, as he explains that privacy is important not because of its implications that we understand (abortion), but rather because of the future ones that modern technology will create that we can't yet comprehend.

The issue of the "unsigned note" is a thought-provoking one. It made me think of the Senate confirmation hearings of 30 years from now and the countless "unsigned notes" that will likely present themselves in the forms of emails, blogs, and whatever it is that gets invented tomorrow. In fact, I can imagine an aide to a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee reading these very words down the line in search of incriminating information about me for my own confirmation hearing. Perhaps it would be wise not to comment on Senator Lillienfield's allegations that 1 in 3 of this blog's contributors use drugs on a regular basis.

Why do people care that Leo is a recovering drug addict, you ask? Well, why did they care whether Bill Clinton inhaled or not in college? Or whether George W. Bush had a DWI when he was 30? (Or whether Laura Bush killed a guy?!) People care about these things even if they don't have any impact on the person's current job performance. It might be dumb, but it's reality. Also, there is a tendency to be suspicious of addicts who claim to be sober, so there would probably be a decent percentage of the public convinced a Valium addict was running the White House, and what kind of example does that set for our children!

The theme of practicality versus idealism returned once again in this episode in an interesting way. Firstly, we have the outgoing Supreme Court justice accusing the president of "running great guns" in the campaign, but then driving to the "middle of the road" immediately after taking office. The president defends himself by raising all the practical obstacles that stand in the way of his governing the way he would prefer to in an ideal world, leading to Jusitce Crouch channeling his inner Lloyd Bentsen: "I remind you, sir, that I have the following things to negotiate: an opposition Congress, special interests with power beyond belief, and a bitchy media." "So did Harry Truman." "Well I am not Harry Truman." "Mr. Bartlet, you needn't point out that fact." Secondly, in a reversal of roles, we find that this time it is Josh whose principles are bothered by the idea of investigating who might be using drugs, while it is Toby who has his eye on the nomination and just wants to get it done.

As for the brewing relationships, I totally agree with you. One of the main plot developments that you can be sure has the potential to ruin a good show is a ridiculous romantic relationship between two main characters. There are countless examples. In this instance, I agree with you that Josh and Donna's relationship is playful and fun and enjoyable to watch as long as it doesn't progress too much from its current dynamic; Danny and C.J.'s, however, is implausible and annoying (and I happen to like Timothy Busfield, so I'm not as biased). Let's hope that neither couple becomes more than just friends, albeit with some occasional flirting.

-- Av


Av --

I admire your restraint as you play along with your "feelings" about the brewing relationships as if you don't know exactly how they end up; I can't decide if you wrote that last line as a genuine expression of how you felt at the time you first saw these episodes, or with a knowing smirk.

Until I saw this episode and did some research about the topic, I had no idea that the lack of a constitutional right to privacy was a legitimate position held by some originalists. Though I, like you, have had extensive exposure to the notion of religious law canon being a strict code, I can't understand the inflexible originalist philosophy. As "Thomas Jefferson" wrote in the foreword to "America: The Book": "If we had meant for the Constitution to be written in stone we would have written it in stone. Most things were written in stone back then, you know. I'm not trying to be difficult but it's bothersome when you blame your own inflexibility and extremism on us."

As far as the practical issue of privacy is concerned, Sam's speech to Bartlet is ahead of its time. The user-generated content that makes up so much of today's popular internet usage - Web 2.0 - wasn't around back then, but Sam's view is enlightening when thinking about the blurred line between private and public that exists in the current climate. In fact, given the extent to which people forfeit their own privacy on the web, it's scary to consider the prospect of a Supreme Court judge who doesn't see it as a Constitutional right. And you're quite right that the confirmations of 30 years from now will be fascinating due to emails, blogs, etc. So will political campaigns having to deal with old, drunken Facebook pictures. I'm sure that current college undergraduates who have their entire future political lives on their mind at all times are being careful and taking relevant advice. But that has to be a small minority, right? I think it's more likely most candidates running for a Congressional seat in 30 years have a whole new set of "background" problems to deal with than the current generation of politicos do.

-- Binny

1 comment:

  1. Neither of you addressed what I thought was the most provocative part of this episode: Josh's role and increased mania. Once his initial hesitation toward Harrison escalates to all-out madness, Josh becomes a bit more crazed. This is course coupled with the assignment he is performing with regard to the Lillianfield accusation. But faced with these two storylines intertwining in Josh's demeanor and rants in this episode, you have to at least consider the blurry line that develops between Josh's idealism and sense of right and wrong vs. his performance of an assignment and behavior around the office. I felt that at times in this episode Josh was acting out his feelings toward one of these topics while dealing with the other, something I thought was just cleverly presented. He can't compartmentalize one vs. the other; rather he's forced to multi-task and to frantically handle everything on his desk - and his mind - that week.