The West Wing S01E07: The State Dinner

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Storms and ships …

The storm drama, with a hurricane catching an entire battle group at sea was genuinely poignant. I wonder though whether the senior admiral wouldn’t have known that sailing away from a storm trajectory involves the risk of a change in the path of the storm. That’s pretty elementary meteorology. And even more basic risk management.

As a dramatic device I guess it worked. It was not a presidential mistake, but his responsibility all the same, and the ending, during which he stays on the radio with a dying sailor, is perfect. It is indeed the most unpleasant responsibility of high office to accept responsibility for deaths that occur ‘on my watch’.

… Indonesia …

The silly distraction-for-laughs of the translation drama aside, Toby Ziegler’s mission to chastise the Indonesians and then ask for a political favour seemed the height of naïveté.

Bartlet with the stony-faced, ill-mannered Indonesian president.
Bartlet with the stony-faced, ill-mannered Indonesian president.

The entire Indonesian interchange was a sore point for me the first time I saw it, and remains a minor sore point to this day.

In 1975 Kissinger, still in Nixon mode, and Ford, apparently also in Nixon mode, greenlighted an Indonesian invasion of Portuguese Timor (now East Timor), which resulted in indiscriminate massacres, including the execution of five Australian journalists. Others have been killed since.

The portrayal of the Indonesian president (a pretty good imitation of Suharto) as a curtly rude and arrogant man was spot on. My own experience of higher ranking Indonesian officials is of intensely chauvinist, racist, overbearingly arrogant tribal leaders who expect patronage and the benefits of corruption. My impression was that they always resented the expectation that they not dispose of others’ lives at whim. Human rights is not an ethical concept worth a damn in Indonesia.

Ziegler's ill-conceived attempt at extracting a favour from an Indonesian political operative.
Ziegler’s ill-conceived attempt at extracting a favour from an Indonesian political operative.

The political climate has changed, and will continue to do so with the greater influence of the bourgeoisie (a socio-economic middle class not reliant on corruption and patronage) and a more Western ethic in the military to defer to civilian authority. But in 1999 Indonesia was a less civilised version of the Singaporean police state.

In that personal context I agreed with Ziegler carpeting the Indonesians in the president’s speech, though I knew it was bullshit: the USA fully supported human rights abuses in Indonesia in those days. But I had to wonder why Sorkin would portray Ziegler as stupid enough to think he could get a backdoor concession like letting a political prisoner just walk away from an Indonesian gaol.

Still, Sorkin really rubbed the grapefruit into Indonesia’s face. That was enough for me to derive some small satisfaction from an otherwise mishandled topic.

… vermeil …

The Danny Concannon vermeil distraction was cute. Press secretaries at the top of their game have at their fingertips an astonishing range of information they can pull out of nowhere to answer curly questions. Journalists do love to play ‘gotcha’ with spin doctors. And it was another opportunity to set up some tension between CJ Cregg and Concannon.

More indicative of a press secretary’s life are inane questions, like the ones about the clothes people will be wearing for a dinner, or what wine will be served. People who confuse such details with journalism or news are a barely tolerable annoyance for any spin doctor.

… shithead gangsters …

Mandy Hampton gained another opportunity to piss me off by arguing for negotiating with armed gangsters calling themselves militia. Contrary to all political cowardice in the USA, now and back then, the way to deal with such people is to come to arrest them, and to shoot them if they resist.

To not do that is to advertise that the laws of the nation are discretionary and unpredictable. That makes the USA something other than a nation of laws.

The outcome in such matters is predictably bad. Armed lunatics who think they can hold a nation to ransom are probably better off dead. What happens if they get away with giving the finger to the nation’s law enforcement agencies? What hope do innocent bystanders have when the same people now take potshots at random innocent bystanders or conduct lynchings?

None of these people are militias. They have always been, and remain, gangsters.

… distractions …

Squeezing in another shot at Sam for being an idiot about Laurie was to be expected. It was annoying the first time, but gets more bearable because I know that the relationship matures into a more adult conception of exactly who she is and what Sam’s rôle can be in her life.

More inspiring was the labour dispute between the truckers and the long-haul companies. It is a peculiar American notion that such disputes must be resolved by conciliation (meaning, no state intervention), but Bartlet to the rescue.

Dressed in full state dinner regalia, Bartlet waltzes in, demands all parties stay standing, as if to attention, and then makes it plain he will nationalise the industry and draft the truckers into military service if there’s no agreement.

It is a reminder that a legitimate rôle for the state in a liberal democracy is to step in when the market fails to deliver an outcome that is in the national interest. It is, in fact, one of the cornerstones of democracy altogether: what is the utility of a national government that merely rubber-stamps the demands of a narrow constituency or clique of patrons?

… and the first lady

The first lady embarrassing CJ at the dinner.
The first lady embarrassing CJ at the dinner.

When Abby made her grand entrance I was torn. Stockard Channing was an inspired choice that worked well opposite Martin Sheen, though we wouldn’t see just how well until later episodes. But in this episode she starts out by busting out of her dress, trying to tell CJ to sex herself up, and then to make cringingly embarrassing match-making remarks.

She does redeem herself with an inspired line that is a great credit to Sorkin.

You know, one of the things that happens when I stay away too long, is that you forget that you don’t have to power to fix everything. You have a big brain. And a good heart. And an ego the size of Montana. You do, Jed. You don’t have the power to fix everything. But I do like watching you try.

It’s what I’d like to hear my wife tell me. And it’s what I’d like to hear her say sincerely.

Credits

  • Written by Aaron Sorkin & Paul Redford (Redford was a story editor and writer on Sports Night, and would become co-producer for The West Wing over time). Directed by Christopher Misiano. Originally aired on 10 November 1999.

  • Regular headline cast members are listed for episode one.

  • Special Guest Star: Stockard Channing as Abbey Bartlet.

  • Guest Starring: Lisa Edelstein as Laurie; Timothy Busfield as Danny Concannon; Janel Moloney as Donna Moss; David Rasche as Carl Everett; John Kapelos as Seymour Little; Peter Kors as Rahmadi Sumahidjo Bambang.

  • Co-Starring: Kathryn Joosten as Mrs. Landingham; Melissa Fitzgerald as Carol; Ariono Suriawinata as President of Indonesia; Nelson Mashita as Minaldi.

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