The West Wing S01E13: Take Out the Trash Day

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Although the news cycle frequently referred to in The West Wing, and on which many of CJ’s dilemmas are based, no longer exists in its 1990s form, the title of the episode is still topical. It refers to the practice of burying information no one wants to see too much of again on a day, and at a time, which ensures minimal press coverage. Friday afternoon is still a preferred time slot for this practice. As Josh Lyman explains to Donna Moss – and the audience – there are only so many column centimetres ‘above the fold’ of a broadsheet newspaper (meaning attention-grabbing headlines immediately on display). If important news is mixed in with potentially embarrassing or uncomfortable news, the bet is that no one will spend too much time investigating the discomforting items, and even if they do, ‘no one reads the papers on Saturday’.

Writing in 2009 for the Associated Press, Sharon Theimer directly carpeted the Obama administration for issuing news it considers unfavourable ‘when the fewest people are likely to notice’.

Among recent examples: On Friday, Nov. 13, the Obama administration announced it would put the professed mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on trial in civilian court in New York. It also disclosed the resignation of the top White House lawyer, who had taken blame for some of the problems surrounding the administration’s planned closing of the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The following Friday, Nov. 20, saw the Justice Department quietly notifying a court that it intended to drop manslaughter and weapons charges against a Blackwater Worldwide security guard involved in a 2007 Baghdad shooting that left 17 Iraqis dead. The court filing was sealed from public view and submitted without ceremony, in contrast to the Monday last December when the charges were announced. Then, the Justice Department held a noon news conference and put out a lengthy press release.

On previous Fridays, the White House acknowledged it may not be able to close the Guantanamo prison by January as the president promised, announced Obama was imposing punitive tariffs on car and light-truck tires from China, and disclosed that Obama had waived conflict-of-interest rules for several aides.

“It’s a time-honored practice where the president’s trying to talk about what he wants to talk about and push the subjects that maybe he doesn’t want to talk as much about into a time when people aren’t paying as much attention,” said Dee Dee Myers, press secretary during Clinton’s first two years in office and a consultant for The West Wing “trash day” episode.

If Friday is a prime day to dump potentially unfavorable news in Washington, 5 p.m. is the witching hour.

The day before Halloween, the Obama administration slipped out news on several ongoing issues, much of it in late afternoon or evening. It included developments on warrantless wiretapping, terror interrogations, the CIA leak case, the reliability of the government’s stimulus job creation figures, lobbyists and other visitors to the White House, and the Securities and Exchange Commission’s failure to detect disgraced financier Bernard Madoff’s Ponzi scheme for years.

With the decline of the ‘press’ embodied in hardcopy newspapers, taking out the trash becomes harder to do. But not impossible.
On 18 December 2015, the BBC reported:

It’s being called “take out the trash day” – a reference from TV’s The West Wing – when the government unloads potentially embarrassing news in a blizzard of documents on the final day of term.

A total of 36 written ministerial statements and 424 government documents were published on Thursday, as Parliament rose for the Christmas recess.

Labour – which was not above this sort of thing when it was in power – has accused David Cameron of a lack of transparency and “attempting to blind us with massive information”.

Tying up loose ends

In the context of this episode, though, maybe writer Aaron Sorkin was having a little fun too, referring to the fact that the episode is mostly about tying up loose ends he left hanging in previous episodes.

Lyman and Seaborn castigated as stupid by House Republicans.
Lyman and Seaborn castigated as stupid by House Republicans.

Lyman and Sam Seaborn receive a rare spanking for incompetence by House Republicans trying to barter away a hearing into White House investigations of the Peter Lillienfield/Larry Claypool accusations that one in three White House staffers use recreational drugs and McGarry lied about his own history of addictions. It is a rare moment when Republicans are shown, in the early series, as pragmatic and uninterested in the sordid publicity of witch-hunts.

Nevertheless, I fail to see how Lyman and Seaborn acted irresponsibly to create a huge mess. Getting the White House counsel to investigate the allegations would have been a tacit admission there was some truth to them, and would have created a paper trail inevitably leading to beat ups and confected scandal. Putting on my professional hat as a sometime public affairs consultant and strategist, I still think that under similar circumstances I would have advised my client to state publicly that Lillienfield and Claypool were grandstanding, and that if they had any evidence of illegal activity, they should make it public, or file it with the appropriate authorities. But until such time, the White House would not dignify attempts at witch-hunting or scaremongering by wasting taxpayer funds on invading the personal privacy of thousands of people. It is an issue absolutely worth digging in the heels.

The leak of Leo McGarry’s personnel file, containing the confidential information about his substance abuse history, is uncovered and dealt with. It turns out that a junior HR staffer leaked McGarry’s personnel file to Claypool, who is ‘a family friend’. What ensued in the show is just sentimental nonsense.

Seaborn fires the McGarry file leaker, Karen Larsen.
Seaborn fires the McGarry file leaker, Karen Larsen.

If you discover that a relatively junior employee has leaked sensitive and restricted information, generally you have two choices: a publicly humiliating sacking implicating people who should know better, and possibly the threat of criminal charges for suborning a crime. Or Machiavellian subterfuge to ‘turn’ the leaker into one who leaks what you decide to leak. Seaborn is absolutely right to fire Karen Larsen. Leaking personnel information is today a criminal offence in many countries, and rightly so. Moreover, what else would prevent as unprincipled an employee as Larsen from doing it again?

McGarry’s decision to rescind her sacking, and even to call what she did ‘a little brave’ is sentimental twaddle coming from a man who should have no room for such undergraduate reasoning. Nevertheless, it makes him seem a little more humane in a continuum of McGarry character study that leans towards the misanthropic, authoritarian end of the spectrum in personality types.

The hate crimes bill is about to be signed and we revisit the brutal murder of Lowell Lydell – stoned to death by teenagers for being gay. In a brilliant exception to the generally execrable lines for Mandy Hampton, she alerts CJ Cregg to her misgivings about the Lydell’s feelings about endorsing the President’s support for the bill. We are led down the garden path here with some credible but devious scripting: thinking that the parents’ reservations observed by Hampton might be shame about their son’s homosexuality, Cregg sounds them out, only to find the unexpected:

Cregg: I’m sorry. I was asking … Mr. Lydell, I don’t know how else to put this. But if you appear in front of the press to be at all embarrassed about your son’s homosexuality … I guess … let me just say this, do you support the President?

Jennifer Lydell: Yes, we do.

Jonathan Lydell: No, we do not.

Jennifer Lydell: Jonathan …

Cregg hears from the Lydells.
Cregg hears from the Lydells.

Jonathan Lydell: No, that was really the last … [Mrs. Lydell tries to protest] No, we do not. The hate crimes bill is fine. Who gives a damn? It’s fine. I don’t care. If you ask me, we shouldn’t be making laws against what’s in a person’s head but who gives a damn? I don’t understand how this President, who I voted for, I don’t understand how he can take such a completely weak-ass position on gay rights.

Jennifer Lydell: Jonathan …

Jonathan Lydell: [touches his wife’s hand] Gays in the military, same-sex marriage, gay adoption, boards of education – where the hell is he? I want to know what qualities necessary to being a parent this President feels my son lacked? I want to know from this President, who has served not one day in Vietnam – I had two tours in Vietnam. I want to know what qualities necessary to being a soldier this President feels my son lacked? Lady, I’m not embarrassed my son was gay. My government is.

It is such an obvious assault on the timidity of Democrat ‘liberals’ to actually be liberal that I won’t really need to add my two cents’ worth on gay rights. But I would feel remiss if I didn’t add that sixteen years after this episode was aired, the most barbaric assault on women’s rights in the Western world continues to be conducted in the USA, and without any notable support from the gay rights activists, whose recent successes could not have taken place without the widespread support of women.

It is an enduring shame for America to be emulating Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the Afghan Taliban on human rights.

Democrats as right wing stooges?

This underlying theme of Democrat surrender to extreme right social agenda is somewhat complemented by President Bartlet’s limp response to a study on teenage sexuality and avoiding unwanted pregnancies. Release of that study is bartered away to avoid a Congressional investigation of the White House drug allegations. Shown as pragmatic politics, that’s what I thought of it back in 2007, when I first saw this episode. Today, however, I see it just as expedient cowardice.

A dejected Cregg contemplates leaking the Lydell story to Danny Concannon.
A dejected Cregg contemplates leaking the Lydell story to Danny Concannon.

Maybe Sorkin had a little of that in mind too when he scripted Cregg becoming quite despondent about the pragmatics of telling half-truths, almost leaking the inside story on the Lydells to reporter Danny Concannon; and unprofessional breach of trust of the kind Toby Ziegler was concerned about when he shut her out of the news that India was mobilising against Pakistan several episodes earlier. Concannon saves the day by refusing to take the lead from her (is this like him defending her ‘honour’ from himself?), knowing what the consequences would be.

At the end of tying up all these loose ends, the series hasn’t advanced much, nor said a lot of things, except perhaps to shine a cold hard light on the pragmatic amorality of the political process.

Worst of all was the President’s prudishness in explicitly stating ‘I won’t mention that word’ (take your pick from cunnilingus, fellatio, penis, vagina, clitoris, etc). It is a plainly retarded attitude to sexuality in general, and sex education for young people in particular by pursuing strategy that can result only in the opposite of the goals to reduce rates of sexually transmitted disease and unwanted teen pregnancies.

In my last review, and the comments on it, I proposed that the entire social and cultural outlook of the USA is strongly tainted by a low-brow Protestant ethic derived from largely ideological, hypocritical piousness. I argued that the effects of this fascisto-religionism are embedded in the attitudes of every American, even the secular humanists. In this episode Sorkin certainly suggests that even the enlightened heroes of our story are affected by such group-think (except, maybe, Cregg). Alternatively, Sorkin himself is also beholden to subconscious assumptions that normalise the cowardly behaviour of the White House.

Ziegler as liberal conscience

Once again Toby Ziegler shines as a humanist, this time reprising his previous championship of arts funding in defending the PBS against demands for budget cuts. In this defence he suffers a little ridicule even from his colleagues:

Bartlet: We have appointed five people to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Republicans in the House, as well as an alarming number of Democrats, have been holding up those appointments.

Ziegler: I’ve been fully briefed.

Bartlet: As far as I can tell, their reluctance has little, if anything, to do with bananas.

Ziegler: I’m meeting with some key people this afternoon.

Bartlet: You’re all set?

Ziegler: I was raised on Sesame Street. I was raised on Julia Child. I was raised on Brideshead Revisited. Their legacies are safe in my hands.

CJ Cregg is standing in the doorway, giggling.

Ziegler: [to Cregg] You’ve got a problem?

Cregg: [laughing] You watched cooking shows?

Ziegler: I watched Miss Julia Child.

Cregg: [superciliously] Okay.

It is quite sad to think that governments throughout the West have debrided public broadcasting while handing unprecedented media monopolies and oligopolies to some of the most amoral and criminal corporations in history. However, that point was never raised in Ziegler’s advocacy for funding the PBS.

Altogether this episode has the feel of being rushed. Too much busy work for idle hands, or not enough skilful editing to create a sense of coherence and unity. Dulé Hill never appears, which is unusual for a headline star. It just seems that something was missing, the way you sometimes feel you have forgotten something just before leaving the house.

Neverthless, this was hardly the worst show, adding a little more to the legends being constructed for key characters like Cregg, Concannon, Ziegler, and Seaborn. Most importantly, I suspect it raised some thorny issues for thought and debate among its intended American audience. It certainly left me with many things to think and talk about.

Credits

  • Written by Aaron Sorkin. Directed by Ken Olin. First aired 26 January 2000 (precisely 16 years before my latest viewing).

  • Headline cast in opening credits: Rob Lowe as Sam Seaborn; Moira Kelly as Mandy Hampton; Allison Janney as CJ Cregg; Richard Schiff as Toby Ziegler; John Spencer as Leo McGarry; Bradley Whitford as Josh Lyman; and Martin Sheen as President Jed Bartlet.

  • Guest starring: Timothy Busfield as Danny Concannon; Janel Moloney as Donna Moss; Suzy Nakamura as Cathy; Dakin Matthews as Congressman Simon Blye; James Handy as Congressman Joseph Bruno; Ray Baker as Jonathan Lydell; Liza Weil as Karen Larsen; Linda Gehringer as Jennifer Lydell; Renee Estevez as Nancy.

  • Co-starring: Kathryn Joosten as Dolores Landingham; NiCole Robinson as Margaret Hooper; Melissa Fitzgerald as Carol Fitzpatrick; Kim Webster as Ginger; Larry Sullivan Jr as Hamlin; Bradley James as Secret Service Agent Donnie.

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.