The West Wing S01E04: Five Votes Down

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There was something refreshing about the exercise of power illustrated in this episode, particularly since it was not shown as honourable or ethical. Getting votes has never had anything to do with the right thing to do. I particular enjoyed the exchange between Leo and black caucus leader Mark Richardson (played by Thom Barry). Richardson dressed him down for taking the black vote for granted in passing a gun control bill that is a joke, as Richardson points out in a sharp, succinct little speech:

Leo meets Democrat black caucus leader Mark Richardson.
Leo meets Democrat black caucus leader Mark Richardson.

Not the three-inch grip, but the two-inch grip. With the forty-gauge barrel and the thirty round clip, not the twenty round clip. With a three-day wait to run a check to see if you’re crazy. As if wanting the gun wasn’t a pretty good heads up in the first place. No, this is for show. And I think it’s an unconscionable waste of the taxpayer’s money to have it printed, signed and photocopied, to say nothing of enforced. No, I want the guns, Leo. You write a law that can save some lives. I’ll sign it. In the mean time, please don’t tell me how to be a leader of black men. You look like an idiot.

It is one of Leo’s few losses, and his remarks later were on the money:

We got what we deserved. It was hubris and we got what we deserved.

Nothing much seems to have changed in fifteen years. No rational attempt at a national level to regulate the availability and use of firearms has ever been seriously proposed. It is evidence of a national delusion in the USA. Not because gun ownership is ‘bad’, but because all the arguments to prevent rationality are cretinous, but have succeeded.

Sorkin’s eye for opportunity was sharp. He managed to spin the lobbying effort into a rapprochement of sorts between Leo and vice president Hoynes while also revealing Leo and Hoynes to be recovering alcoholics. Plot and character development at a blistering pace. Just like the dialogue. At least it was in those days. Today a number of other shows have emulated the machinegun staccato patter, and it seems slower watching it again today. But not much slower.

In these early days it seemed intriguing to contemplate an ambitious and capable vice president attempting to overthrow his running mate. Perhaps it is a shame that nothing serious ever came of it. But Sorkin did at least offer a more credible answer to what VPs actually do than the contemporary Sharon Stone retirement sinecure, Agent X.

Toby

I was a little less enchanted by the sub-plots about financial disclosure and a president high on pain killers. These may have been educational asides and humour at the time, but they pale into insignificance when compared to what pecuniary improprieties White House staffers get away with stone cold sober these days. And for decades. The only benefit I can see arising from these distractions was to sketch out Toby in more detail. And creating insight into a character I find oddly sympatico.

Years ago a work colleague once told me I should watch the West Wing because ‘Toby in it is just like you’. I had no idea what he meant, and when I did see the show, the comparison seemed less compelling than to Josh Lyman, whose impetuosity and tendency towards arrogance struck me as a closer match to my own temperament as spin doctor. Toby seemed more deliberate, with an ethically-based self-righteousness I eschewed for more Clausewitzian, Machiavellian principles. But today I suspect there’s more of Toby in me than of Josh, and maybe less of any of them altogether.

Richard Schiff started out in the 1980s as a director for stage plays before switching to acting, and graduating from bit parts to meatier roles on TV and in film. I remember seeing him as a clean-shaven critical witness in City Hall, and as a crotchety lawyer in Se7en. I think The West Wing made him, and I have been impressed by his cameos ever since, notably as a very bad man in a couple of episodes of the spy comedy Burn Notice. If I had to cast a really bad guy who could make you shiver without guns or meat cleavers in any shot, he’d be in my top three picks.

Life

Leo confesses his marriage breakup to Hoynes.
Leo confesses his marriage breakup to Hoynes.

The first time I watched Leo’s marriage dissolve I thought it was a necessary comment on the pressures of such a career on non-political human relationships. Since then I thought it was presented a little naïvely, in that people like Leo have marriages that are power partnerships, not fantasies of playing house with Dorothy Day. Leo’s wife would have known exactly what was coming when he signed on for the presidential campaign (shown in flashback later in the series). The relationship is likely to more closely resemble the original British conception of the Urquhart marriage. Leaving Leo now, in the early days of a presidency he had delivered, seemed incongruous; she must have known all along what life would be like.

Nevertheless, partnerships do break under the strains of heavy workloads, and it was a valid device for making that point. Interestingly, the principal characters other than Leo and the president are shown as unmarried, which I think is unusual for White House staffers even today. I guess it opened opportunities for the no-strings romantic entanglements that did add a certain charm, at times (with the exception of Mandy and Josh, who might have been believable as a high school fling, but not as an adult power couple).

Credits

  • Writer: Aaron Sorkin, from a story by Lawrence O’Donnell Jr (who played Bartlet’s father in some future episode flashbacks) and Patrick Caddell (now an occasional Fox News talking head). Director: Michael Lehmann. First aired on 13 October 1999.

  • Special guest star: Tim Matheson as Vice President John Hoynes.

  • Guest Starring Michael McGuire as Congressman Cal Tillinghouse, Thom Barry as Congressman Mark Richardson, Janel Moloney as Donna Moss, Jay Underwood as Congressman Christopher Wick, Mark Blum as Congressman Katzenmoyer, Sara Botsford as Jenny McGarry, Jillian Armenante as Leela.

  • The regular cast credited in the opening is listed for episode one, with Dulé Hill being added in episode three.

For discussion, see my Google Plus post and Randy Resnick’s Google Plus West Wing collection.

For a complete list of West Wing commentary see my West Wing index page.