Thursday, December 17, 2009

Season 1, Episode 17: "The White House Pro-Am"

Plot summary
: The President's and first lady's staffs feud over rival agendas when her public statements about foreign child-labor abuse inspires a Congresswoman to attach an amendment that will surely torpedo a long-delayed international tariff bill favored by the president. What's more, when the revered chairman of the Federal Reserve dies, the president is under pressure to name the former head's top lieutenant as his successor - the same handsome man who seriously dated the first lady in college. Away from the White House, Zoey clashes with her boyfriend Charlie when she suggests that they not step out together at an upcoming club opening at the request of the Secret Service which is concerned about recent hate letters concerning their interracial relationship. Josh asks opinionated Toby to mind his manners prior to parleying with two important Congressmen.

Click here (Part 1) and here (Part 2) to watch "The White House Pro-Am"

Av --

What, no golf? Though I'll admit I had never heard of the White House hosting a golf tournament, the sports fan in me was excited by the title of this episode, hoping to see some of the actors get a chance to show off their golf swings. (Martin Sheen and Richard Schiff, incidentally, have 16 and 25 handicaps, respectively, but Rob Lowe tops them at 14.5.) Instead, we got a pretty strong episode centered around one theme: relationships. The many personal and professional relationships that exist within the White House are crucial elements to the functionality of the people within, and, by extension, the White House itself. No matter what person, or what party, is in power, relationships will always be one of the most important facets of a presidency. One imagines the focus on this unchanging aspect of political life was the impetus to spend copious amounts of time reciting tidbits from a book about life in the early 1900's and, as a contrast, highlight the many changes the country has undergone. (Note: One doesn't imagine this. In fact, one has no idea why this book was discussed to the extent it was. I guess it's one of those things we have to write off as "one of those things," akin to Sam's Alabama/Ten Commandments obsession a few episodes back.) Anyway, as many different relationships were featured here, I decided to go bullet points and delve into five relationships featured in one way or another. I'm including both individual relationships as well as those that are meant to represent more than just the individuals involved. (You'll see what I mean.) I'll take it in order from least intriguing/important in this episode to most.

  • Josh and Toby - Though their meeting with representatives of the Congressional liberal base was probably the least relevant thing that takes place in the episode, it highlights the difference between Toby, whose goal is winning at all costs, and Josh, who shares the goal, but often needs to get there diplomatically. Even though Josh is frustrated with Toby's behavior, he doesn't give him too hard a time about it because he knows Toby's attitude won't change. And it's a good thing for us; few things are more enjoyable on this show than watching Toby having to deal with people and things he doesn't want to.
  • Charlie and Zoey - Here's a typical relationship between college-age boy and college-age girl. You know, other than his working directly for the most powerful man in the world and her being guarded by secret service agents at all times. While we have previously been cautioned of the potential dangers of their going out, seeing some of the practical ramifications was obviously difficult to stomach. It's worth noting that in this one respect, their relationship is not actually changed all that much by their extra levels of security. After all, we saw Zoey and Charlie run into trouble in "Mr. Willis of Ohio" when nobody knew who she was. The challenges they face were (and, in some parts of the country, probably still are) faced by many a young interracial couple, the only difference being Charlie's inability to stand up in the face of hate, the choice being taken out of his hands by his superiors. While his conviction is admirable, I hope he'll take Danny's sage advice to heart: be the one guy in her life who's hassle-free.
  • The senior staff and Congress - One issue that has been dealt with more in previous episodes, and I anticipate being dealt with a lot more in future ones, is the symbiotic relationship between Bartlet's staff and Congress. (The inventor of the term symbiosis, Heinrich Anton de Bary, called it "the living together of unlike organisms." He may have been talking about biology, but the definition couldn't be more appropriate here.) The two need each other: Bartlet needs congressmen to vote with him, support him, and work with him, and congressmen need Bartlet to stand behind them, back their positions, and use his influence to help them get re-elected or elected to new positions. The more traditional manifestation of this relationship is the Josh/Toby meeting to court more votes for the GFTMAA (not nearly important enough to reference beyond the acronym), but the more intriguing one is when Abbey, reluctantly acting on behalf of the president's staff, negotiates with a Congresswoman willing to compromise the bill's passing for her own political agenda. I think these kind of things probably happen often enough that the Congresswoman backing down is realistic (and we saw some similar bargaining in "Five Votes Down"), but it will be fascinating to see the genuine showdown that will ensue when a Congressman won't back down.
  • The president's staff and the first lady's staff - This one can actually be summed up in one back-and-forth between Lily Mays, Abbey's chief of staff, and Sam: "We've gotta find a way for our two staffs to work together better than this." "No we don't. We need to find a way for your staff to work better with our staff." Sam's correct (and kind of ballsy) in calling out Abbey for her numerous missteps this episode, and he's right to assert control over the first lady's public appearances, stances, and media quotes. An intelligent, charismatic first lady can be a terrific asset to a presidency, but she and her staff need to remember that "your guy's married to our guy and our guy won an election."
  • Jed and Abbey - The first two times we met Abbey were briefly at a state dinner, then as doctor/loving wife during Jed's MS flareup. Now we finally get to see her as Abbey Bartlet, first lady, and it was a very satisfying look indeed. I'll address the elephant in the room and say that I really don't think they were looking at Hillary here; she hasn't been cast as another politician spearheading a massive policy initiative; Abbey's background is not in law, and she seems to be taking the pre-Clinton approach of taking on a family-friendly issue (Nancy Reagan: war on drugs, Barbara Bush: literacy) as her cause. Watching her with Jed, you can see what he sees in her: intelligence, passion, and someone not afraid to call him out when he's wrong. The thing about this specific argument is Jed is in the right - Abbey leaking her support for Ron Ehrlich to be the new Fed chairman created a problem for him - but instead of explaining to her why it's a problem and why he's waiting a day to make the decision, he "staffed it out to C.J," because he didn't like that she was sending messages through a medium. And though Abbey was right to be angered by that, she has to know that putting out that statement of support will create a story, not to mention touching on her husband's sensitivities as a man, even if they are decades old. (I think Jed's waiting was less about not wanting to confirm a former boyfriend of Abbey's, and more about trying to stall making a big decision, even when you already know what you're going to do. We've all been there.) The battle that ensues (quite well-acted, by the way) follows the natural course - the built-up tension that leads to anger and raised voices gives way to concessions and apologies, and the Bartlets walk out of the Oval Office arm in arm. In a golf pro-am, the winning pair is usually the one that gets the best teamwork from the "pro" and the "am," each one respecting the other's talents and understanding each's own role. Maybe this episode was about golf, after all.
-- Binny


Binny --

Sorry Binny, no golf. Although maybe it would have been fun to see the staffers paired up with pro golfers. I'd say Donna and Tiger would go well together.

You are clearly correct that this episode was about the series of different relationships we are presented with and the way they are all interwoven. This isn't necessarily how we would normally picture the president but in a way he is one giant relationship manager: he has a hand either directly or indirectly in all of these and needs to either deal with them himself or manage the people who are handling them. I'll chime in on some of the examples you raised:

  • Josh and Toby - This was actually my favorite storyline of the episode. You hit it right on the head when you said that there are few things more enjoyable than seeing Toby being forced into a situation he wants no part of. Indeed, when Josh tries to encourage him, telling him that "this is why you have a reputation as a pain in the ass" he doesn't let it bother him. "I cultivated that reputation," he proudly replies. It is incredible how much pleasure one can get as a viewer from watching Toby Ziegler squirm. And let's definitely add "How about you be the good cop, I'll be the cop who didn't go to the meeting" to our list of Tobyisms. What list of Tobyisms, you might ask? The one I just started.
  • Charlie and Zoey - I wonder if things would have played out differently if the news that Charlie couldn't go to the club opening had come from the president rather than from Zoey. I think she was right to be the one to tell him from a big-picture relationship approach but I don't think there is any way he reacts the way he does if he hears it directly from the president or the Secret Service. That could have saved them all some unnecessary frustration. I don't blame Charlie for being upset initially, but I was surprised that hours later he hadn't yet figured out on his own that this wasn't Zoey's fault (or even the Secret Service's, really) and that he was making too big of a deal out of it. The point Danny makes about him being the thing in her life that is hassle-free seems to be the point that ultimately convinces him, but I think it was his earlier point that really resonated with Charlie: "One of these days they're gonna miss her and hit me." Charlie realizes that this isn't just about him being a tough guy and risking himself getting hurt to make a point. He would be putting others in harms way, as well.
  • The president's staff and the first lady's staff - I loved how condescending Sam is to Lily throughout this episode. You could almost see him roll his eyes when she told him that they wanted the news cycle. And Sam is right: the first lady and her staff are an extension of the president's staff, not an entity in their own right. They shouldn't have an independent agenda and they should never go rogue. I loved the reasoning Sam used to explain to the first lady why she should run things by his office before she does them: "And I don't not believe that exercise is gonna make me any healthier. But I didn't go to medical school, you did. You say so and I go to the gym." (As an aside, apparently this minor plot line was throw into the episode as Sorkin poking fun at Rob Lowe for his obsession with going to the gym every day.)
  • Jed and Abbey - This was a situation where rather than trying to determine who was right, you try to determine who was less wrong. Abbey shouldn't have given a quote without running it through proper channels and the president should have just spoken to her directly about it (as she points out, they share a bed). They both behaved pretty childishly and foolishly in this episode, but it was refreshing to see that a couple's dynamic doesn't change just because they live in the White House now.
-- Av


Av --

One more I want to toss in here, though I feel like this one will likely be covered more extensively in the future:

  • The president and the media - I was going to say something about the president's relationship with the media, how the flow of information can work both ways, how one can help inform the other and the personal relationship between a president and an individual reporter can be crucial for both... I was going to say something, but I was distracted by President Bartlet's abject unprofessionalism in trying to coax a source out of Danny (a source, it's worth adding, that wasn't even Danny's to begin with). I'm with Leo here - I was strongly urging the president not to have this conversation. It probably didn't hurt his relationship with Danny to ask, but he came off looking like an amateur, with Danny being the pro. (Incidentally, I do not know Timothy Busfeld's handicap, though it no longer is annoying me. Though I still have strong feelings about the conflict of interest when it comes to his relationship with C.J., I concede Danny's kind of growing on me.)
-- Binny


  1. Wow, I checked this on a whim after a months and am shocked to see it's back! Try to stay with it this time guys, I'm loving this.

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