Thursday, January 7, 2010

Season 1, Episode 19: "Let Bartlet Be Bartlet"

Plot summary: Rumors percolate about a scathing memo that outlines the weaknesses of President Bartlet's administration for his political rival and grip the White House until C.J. learns it came from one of the trusted staff. C.J. finally discovers that the memo is in the possession of one reporter and tries to dissuade him from publishing it. Meanwhile, Sam and Toby meet with opposing military officers and congressmen to discuss amending the current "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy towards gays in the armed forces. When two members of the Federal Election Commission resign, Josh sees opportunity and moves fast to meet with contentious senators to suggest that the President appoint two Democrats as replacements instead of sharing one spot with the Republicans. Leo not only has trouble with the White House's faulty e-mail system, he confronts the president and issues a challenge that could define or destroy his administration.

Click here to watch "Let Bartlet Be Bartlet"

Av --

In an effort to clean up my crowded email inbox, I've been going through some old emails recently. I came across a conversation I had a few months ago with my father in which I was complaining about politics, which is actually quite unusual for me. Sonia Sotomayor was going through the Supreme Court confirmation process at the time, one which saw its share of political divisiveness and controversy. What bothered be more than anything else during the confirmation was my sense that the Senate votes, the 100 yeas or nays that would decide whether this person would be appointed to the highest court in the country, were motivated by anything and everything except how the voting senator actually felt. Party loyalty was talked about as a factor. Support for the president was discussed a lot. And, of course, the effect that the senator's vote would have on his or her re-election was a prevailing theme. Though these factors have played a role in almost every legislation decision since time immemorial, for some reason I felt outraged over this issue. How about voting a certain way because your constituents would vote that way, and your duty is to represent them? Or, at worst, voting yea or nay because - and I know this may sound crazy - that's what you think is best for the country?

On some level I get it. Even if it is unseemly, the argument can be made that playing the game - party loyalty, supporting (or battling) the president, and keeping re-election in mind - is done with the goal of staying in government for the long haul, and being in a better position to effect real change. But where's the line? At what point does a politician give up the politically-driven motivations, stick to his guns, and legislate the way he intended to when he first sought (and won) office? Without question, this episode is meant to answer that question for the Bartlet administration, and the answer is a resounding "NOW." Tired of being "stuck in the mud," being able to count nothing outside of a successful Supreme Court appointment as a policy victory one year into office, the staff gets its wake-up call, and though how successfully they respond to it remains to be seen, so far it can be said that they haven't hit the snooze button.

You know it's funny - since this show throws so much at you nearly every episode, I didn't realize the extent to which the administration had been struggling. It's not entirely my fault; since I'm not living in the "West Wing" universe reading Danny Concannon's stories every day, I can only react to what I see, and this was the first time Sorkin really took a real step back to examine the political landscape from a broad perspective. But the hints were there: Sam's disappointment when the president passively allows a death penalty sentence to be carried out; Toby's continued and increasing frustration with being stuck in neutral; and even outgoing Justice Crouch's sharp critical remarks to Bartlet. (Yes, thank you "previouslys." You have a very good handle on the show.) While we've been able to look at various things going on in the White House that tend to end well for team Bartlet, the big picture clearly hasn't looked as good.

Of course, this being a television show, everything that happens in this episode conveniently reminds everyone of this fact at once. Sam finds himself doing a fine job battling congressmen and armed forces officers on gays in the military, until he's coldly - and correctly - reminded that his assignment is just to talk about it, and not really do anything about it. Josh does his best Josh with the Senate party leadership in a neat attempt to try to change how Federal Election Commission nominees are appointed, but quickly backs down when threatened with political retribution. And Leo is there to call all these failed shots. Incredibly, it takes a dated memo from Mandy of all people to point out just how bad things have gotten. But the outrage at Mandy is completely misdirected. Whether or not Danny is right - that upon re-hiring Mandy, the administration didn't ask her what their faults were because they were afraid of the answer - the staff was unquestionably foolish for not even bringing the subject up at all. Though it's been awhile since she got to showcase her ferocity, Mandy is known to be smart, savvy, and very good at highlighting political weakness. Knowing that her job for Russell probably involved a lot of analysis about the Bartlet administration, not using that to their advantage was a strategic error. Sure, it's aggravating that her opinions are now public, but in a sense it serves the staff right for not asking for them earlier. Because then maybe they would have realized the key point that even Mandy was missing.

Yes, to the outside world, Leo was stopping Bartlet from legislating the way he wanted to. It's interesting how no matter who the president is, the media and public always look at the top advisers and chiefs of staff as key policy-makers, which they no doubt are, but often in place of the president himself. For all we know, the level of influence people like James Baker, Dick Morris, and Karl Rove had with their bosses may actually be higher in perception than reality; after all, the guy who got elected has a voice in the room, too. And, officially, the most important one. (One could even call him "the decider.") Having the perception exist that Leo moves Bartlet to the middle when Leo knows the reality is the reverse, is kind of clever. Having Leo boldly confront the president with this reality and a plea to change the status quo is exhilarating. (Though to be honest, it got a bit overly theatrical somewhere around the time each member of the staff was pledging his service to the president. The only time you'll see more cheese is at a Green Bay Packers home game.) The epiphany now having been reached, and re-election officially moving down the priority list in the name of "raising the level of public debate in this country," (great line by the way) I look forward to seeing where the staff - and the show - goes from here.

Finally, though I keep promising myself I'm not going to look at the Bartlet administration and attempt to draw real-life parallels, seeing a liberal president who "ran great guns" in a campaign only to find his administration stuck in neutral, facing internal and external criticism for not having done much in a year, and hearing about the "frustration of the people who voted for him," is hitting too close to home right now to ignore it. I wonder if Rahm Emanuel has seen this episode lately.

-- Binny


Binny --

I think a big "West Wing" fan would be hard-pressed to come up with a list of their top 10 favorite episodes without including this one on it. You nailed one of the things that made it so great: the way the series up until now had ever-so-subtly showed us the frustrations and growing pains of the young administration without going over the top with it until it all spills out in this episode. The only accomplishments we've seen them have so far have been the Mendoza confirmation and the passage of an admittedly toothless gun bill that the vice president got most of the credit for anyway. Indeed, most of the time has been spent on defense - avoiding a showdown between India and Pakistan, escaping one PR nightmare after another - rather than leading and governing on the offensive.

The episode as a whole was so great, in fact, that it almost makes you overlook what was a brilliant opening scene. Watching this episode for what was probably the 25th time, I still laughed out loud at this exchange: C.J.: "We should move the thing inside." Toby: "Sam says it’s probably not gonna rain till later," as thunderstorms and lightning are seen and heard in the background. And even though I already know how the president will start his speech (I'm pretty sure I knew what would happen the first time I saw it, as well), it still gets me.

The silver lining of Mandy writing that memo is that now at least the staff hates her as much as the viewing audience does. I'm glad we're finally all on the same page. I was almost cringing in that scene where Josh patronizes and then scolds Mandy as she tries to explain to him what he already knows - that a debate on English as the official language (why not Dutch?) would be a bad idea. I bet she wishes she could go back to panda bear duty.

In other news, Donna returned from her brief stint as an actual character to her original role as a plot device. "Hey Josh, talk to me like I'm a 7-year-old and explain to me using only small words what this super important thing all the grown-ups are talking about today is." It's a clever device in general, but I think they were a little too blatant about it here. That is probably my lone criticism of what is a fantastic episode of television.

Returning to the main point, I wondered about the truth of who drives whom to the middle between Leo and Bartlet and who is really aware of it. Clearly Leo has his opinion and the president either comes around to realizing Leo's right or knew it on some level all along. More interestingly, though, is the seeming knowing glances between Toby and Leo as they discuss the memo as if the fact that the reality is the opposite of the public perception is kind of an unstated understanding among the senior staff. I would even say that this notion is present in the disappointment that Josh and Sam exhibit during the episode: their real frustrations are with the president, but they can’t voice it because he’s the president. So I would argue that the entire senior staff is aware that really it is the president that holds back Leo, not vice versa. So why, then, does Mandy have it backwards? If she was such an integral part of the campaign and is considered such a major player in the party, why can’t she see what is so obvious to everyone else? Maybe that’s why she was put on panda bear duty.

Finally, I was glad that the writers chose a topic as obscure as campaign finance reform and a decision as ostensibly minor as appointing new FEC commissioners as the point for the Bartlet administration to get aggressive about because anything bigger (gays in the military, for example) would have overshadowed the importance of the symbolism of what they were doing. Taking a stand on a major issue is taking a stand for reason; doing so on a minor one is taking a stand for the sake of taking a stand. As someone who has cycled through the series several times now, I think this episode is a real turning point, both for the staff and for the show. The staff is injected with new life to finally go do the things they came to the White House in the first place to accomplish and the show will follow suit. While the first 18 episodes of the series are tremendous, I think this episode kicks off a run of brilliant episode after brilliant episode that goes well into next season and beyond. You have a lot to look forward to coming up. Along those lines, you touched on the most resonating line of the episode, but I think it is one that, very much intentionally so, speaks for the show as well as the staff: "We’re gonna raise the level of public debate in this country, and let that be our legacy." It is, Aaron.

-- Av


Av --

Lest it seem that I, too, have not been enjoying the cold opens, let me register my opinion: very enjoyable. I think what makes them work especially well is that the show uses the sitcom approach of laying the groundwork for a joke that ends with a solid punchline into the credits (in this episode, Bartlet not looking over his remarks carefully and opening with "As I look over this magnificent vista"... while indoors), mixed in with the drama approach of introducing a key plot point before the credits. (Of the current sitcoms I'm familiar with, many, notably "The Office," feature hilarious cold opens completely unrelated to the episode's storyline.)

Well said about everyone being on the same page about hatred toward Mandy, but I think both groups' outrage is misdirected. Like I said above, Josh and the rest of the staff have no right to be angry with her about what she did while working for the opposition. They saw how ruthless she could be when working for them, and when working against them (remember Josh's lunch with her in "Pilot"?), so they can't pretend to be angry that she did her job for their opponent when she was working for their opponent. If the anger is about only finding out about the memo now, that's partially on her, but, as mentioned earlier, it's mostly on them. And our hatred of her is less about her and more about the writers' failure to make her interesting or relevant or someone we want to see on screen. (I mean, I guess that's the same thing as hating a character, I just feel like we should absolve Moira Kelly, who has been given nothing to work with.)

As for your suggestion that the staff deep down knows that Bartlet is the one that keeps nervously staying in the middle, I'm not as sure as you are, at least not unilaterally. When pressed as to why they won't push hard for their FEC nominees, Josh tells Mandy "that's not what we do." That's more of a blanket statement about the administration than it is Bartlet himself. Sam is reminded that the president himself would need to take action to actually get something done vis-à-vis "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," but that could easily mean the office, not just the man. But I think you're right that Toby gets it. The scene you reference, where Toby and Leo discuss the memo, can be seen in an entirely different way. Consider the following exchange: Toby: "The sense is that his instinct is to be aggressive, and you take him to safe ground." Leo (somewhat dismayed): "Okay." Toby (concerned): "Leo..." Leo: Don’t worry about it." When I first saw this, I understood it to mean that Leo was hurt with the accurate criticism, and Toby was attempting to console him about it. Now, though, especially given the look Toby gives Leo when the criticism is first mentioned (excellent pickup on your part), it could mean that Leo is hurt that he has to live with this inaccurate perception. Toby's "Leo" could even be his wanting to confront the issue head-on and let Leo know that he realizes the reality is not this way, and they should challenge the president together. And then Leo shrugs him off, deciding to ultimately take on Bartlet himself. And why does Mandy have it backwards? You answered your own question (emphasis mine): "she was such an integral part of the campaign." She was with the Bartlet crew during the campaign, but not in office. To the outsider, which she was when she wrote that memo, it looked like Leo was the one pushing the president to the middle; it was only the true insiders who could see the truth.

-- Binny


  1. I consider this to be a very important episode in terms of the flow of the entire series (or at least the first four years) but I can't say it's one of my favorites. It's important because it begins to look at the relationship between Leo and Jed. And it shows a lot of the politicking that has to go on to get anything done. Sheds light on real events - I often wonder what went on behind closed doors during the health care bill saga - and what is going on still. I love how Josh, Toby, Sam et al are shown going about doing half-hearted work on issues they'd love to be gung-ho about but they don't invest their souls into it because they know it ain't gonna happen. I know a lot of people who are feeling like that right now.

    Over the top: oh yeah, Aaron Sorkin rarely hits an off note, but when he does, it's a doozy. The "I serve at the pleasure of the President" was standard TV script. It stood out as such, but it didn't annoy me. What did annoy me was the scene before, with Jed saying "I'm going to speak now" and Leo saying, "Tell me again." That was not only over the top, not only cheesy, not only fake, it was BAD. It might be the only WW moment that truly made my skin crawl. No, there are probably others. But it's really bad.

    I did love the muffin riff, though. and Toby, dear Toby. In the third round of Muffingate, Margaret is continuing, and he plays along - "bring me a muffin and I'll take it down to the lab." She thinks he's on her side, then catches on - "You're mocking me, aren't you?" Toby says - and this is one of Richard Schiff's shining moments, to me, "Yes" in such a gentle, kind way, as if he's embarrassed to have done it but has to own up to it. I love that one word line. I don't know who decided it should be delivered that way, but it's gold.

    Love the trout fisherman, too.

  2. From the bottom up:

    I like the trout fishermen for the same reason I like the meeting in L.A. about flag-burning: there is so muuch triviality a president has to go through during his term that it's nice to see that its not unignored. Using it for comedy is exactly the right move, because it's probably how real presidents view these things as well.

    I thought about making a muffin joke, but this particular "comic relief" arc missed with me. (There seems to be one every episode, and it really is hit or miss.) But you're 100% right thaat Richard Schiff's delivery of "yes" was perfect, and true to his character. Of everyone in the cast I've seen so far (remember, only 19 episodes) he is simply the best at multi-layered line delivery. (For more on this see our discussion of "In Excelsis Deo.")

    Yes, the cheese may have culminated with the "serve at the pleasure scene" but you might be right that the "say it again" scene was worse.

    Finally, you do highlight something key, because most of the policy debate/discussion we had seen to this point revolved around external friction; we've seen the key staff members battle everyone from congressmen to the media on policy. But the glimpses of internal policy debate were just that - glimpses. (Toby and "the era of big government is over" in the State of the Union comes to mind.) Like I said, it was great to see them take a step back and really examine why things were the way they were internally in the administration, and how it affected the staff, their morale, and their relationships with each other, specifically Leo and Jed's.

  3. Does anyone know where the trout fishermen speech was filmed? The building rocked!

  4. The television shows are really cool to watch with family. I think that we can spend a great time watching it.