The West Wing S01E15: Celestial Navigation

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I always thought of this episode as just well written and executed tragicomedy. It made me smirk along with the verbal pratfalls, and gnash my teeth at the injustices of circumstances, much in the way I imagine Sorkin wanted me to. But last night, on my fifth or sixth viewing, I thought there was something more to it than the laughs.

It reminded of my first acquaintances with Shakespeare plays in the 1970s, where some amateur directors used a narrator to explain what settings we should imagine for the mostly bare stage that an amateur budget stretched to. And that made me think of Josh Lyman delivering his speech about being the White House Deputy Chief of Staff. Lyman on stage became an anchor point for disparate narratives that would otherwise have required a more complex focal point, and less sketchy exposition.

But I was also reminded of John le Carré’s afterword to the 2011 Penguin edition of The Secret Pilgrim, first published in 1975. The afterword, dated 2001, talked about the banality that is ‘the element of human incompetence in the world of espionage’, with our expectations that spies are specially trained people who do not make stupid mistakes ‘despite the endless news stories of cock-up that reach us by way of disgruntled defectors like Shayler or Tomlinson, or through the daily press; despite briefcases stuffed with priceless secrets left on the London Underground; and computer disks containing the names of informants picked up in second-hand radio stores.’

Josh Lyman takes the stage for a college audience.
Josh Lyman takes the stage for a college audience.

He recalled that he used the deliberate and coldly efficient planning of conspiracy at every step in his first successful novel, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, and then followed up with The Looking Glass War, in which he used ‘cock-up rather than conspiracy as the dramatic engine of my story’. That strategy was widely panned by critics and the public. It seems we want our fictional protagonists to be infallible, so that we can spot deliberate planning and flawless execution in their heroic deeds.

In ‘Celestial Navigation’, Sorkin gives us both, with deliberate planning being thwarted by human failings, as if by a comedy of errors. As if to say that sometimes events are shaped in a far less deliberate way than we might imagine.

This kind of reflection inevitably raises the old question of whether a message is constructed by the intention of the author, or the varied interpretations of the audience, or a bit of both in an alchemy impossible to pin down, predict, or impose as the one and only.

We do share among us the canon of Western myth-making and literature. There’s every reason to suppose that Sorkin was well-versed in that canon, and no reason at all to dismiss the idea that he layered his writing with meanings literal and metaphorical.

The idea of a serving political fixer addressing a college audience is pretty alien in my own political milieu. But it is not beyond belief that such a practice could be good both for young voters (the college audience Lyman appears to be addressing), and the Bartlet administration advertising its wares to that audience.

The intercut unravelling of the Mendoza back-story, and Lyman’s mishandling of the press corps, serve to illustrate that there is always a chain of events and interaction between people in the background that few of us get to see or understand as we digest the resulting news item, the ‘insider information’, or just gossip. As an insight into how politics works that is a really fundamental concept often overlooked by even the political cognoscenti. Well played by Sorkin to embed it this way.

We know the confluence of events that led to Lyman’s disastrous handling of the press corps was entirely avoidable. All his colleagues knew he’d create a train wreck, and even journalist Danny Concannon, who stood to benefit from that wreck, warned him off. But we also know ‘it had to happen’. That it’s just one of those things.

Speaking from personal experience, one of the most difficult jobs in public affairs management is identifying the right people to speak to the press, and keeping the ones who just don’t get it away from anyone who can make notes and repeat things. I have always been astonished by how many senior business executives, professionals, and even politicians fall into that latter category. The most calamitous consequences I have observed accrued to the insistence of board members who parachuted themselves into a media rôle as a vanity exercise.

Lyman’s lexicon should have included two stock phrases: ‘I’m just filling in for CJ today, and I’m not briefed on that question, but we’ll make a note and get back to you on that’; and ‘I’m here only to brief you on the White House response to XYZ issues. I’m sure CJ can answer all those questions when she’s back later tonight/tomorrow.’

McGarry forces O'Leary to apologise.
McGarry forces O’Leary to apologise.

The principal reason why such a thing should never have occurred is that CJ Cregg would have had an understudy – an assistant press secretary with all the knowledge and skills to step in in an emergency, and to occasionally lighten the load for her boss. It’s a position between Cregg’s researcher Carol and Cregg herself. Most organisations needing public affairs management have at least two such people.

The very same thing applies to the debacle with the Secretary for Housing and Urban Development, (the feisty Deborah O’Leary played convincingly by CCH Pounder). This one stretched the bounds of my disbelief, though. Bartlet is more than smart enough to have sidestepped the question with a really simple aside: ‘Until I have spoken personally to Secretary O’Leary, I have no comment to make on this matter.’

Personally I found it unbearably craven that Leo McGarry forced O’Leary to apologise. The Republicans were, and remain, so obviously the party of bigotry that an implied accusation of racism is simple truth, and apologising for it is a bald-faced lie. And that was the point Sorkin was surely making.

I couldn’t quite work out whether Mendoza was being portrayed as wilfully surly, or just the victim if circumstances. As the president’s nominee to the Supreme Court, you would expect him to have been instructed and bullied to say nothing at all to the media most of the time, and yet he appears to have publicly criticised the American Bar Association, the AFL-CIO, and the New York State Legislature in the eight weeks since his nomination, and then was cited to find the President wrong in forcing an apology from Secretary O’Leary. It’s not very smart political play, but it could also be seen as an honest man calling it as he saw it.

His arrest on drunk driving charges was a more obvious confluence of circumstances over which he had absolutely no control: being arrested for being Hispanic and not suitably demure about racist harassment from overly zealous local cops.

Ziegler gets Mendoza out of gaol.
Ziegler gets Mendoza out of gaol.

Leaving aside the impossibility of White House staff demanding and getting the release of a prisoner, I thought the entire sequence between Toby Ziegler and Judge Mendoza was deeply touching, as was Ziegler’s demand for the apology from the cops. But I suppose the dramatics of it were just entertainment. Mendoza would have been dropped from the nomination after his second controversial public statement, and if he had not been, he would have been released from gaol after backchannel shenanigans resulting in a phone call from the state governor, or a senior judge, telling the police chief to get his head out of his arse. I doubt there would have been an apology, though a Supreme Court justice is not an enemy you’d want to have.

My favourite scenes in this episode were all about Charlie trying to wake Bartlet, and his consequent sarcastic rejoinders as he is briefed on the clusterfuck events of the day. The way he sparred with Lyman was particularly entertaining:

Lyman: … First, I’m happy to tell you that the incident involving Secretary O’Leary and Congressman Wooden has been dispensed with. Though not really, and I’ll get to that at the end. Sam asked CJ to move the briefing to two o’clock so that we could fold in the teachers. CJ had emergency root canal surgery at noon and so was unable to brief.

Bartlet: Who did?

Lyman: I did.

Bartlet: Oh God.

Lyman: Yeah. A long story short, you’re gonna be reading a bit today about your secret plan to fight inflation.

Bartlet: I have a secret plan to fight inflation?

Lyman: No.

Bartlet: Why am I gonna be reading that I do?

Lyman: It was suggested in the Press Room that you did.

Bartlet: By who?

Lyman: By me.

Bartlet: You told the press I have a secret plan to fight inflation?

Lyman: No, I did not. Let me be absolutely clear, I did not do that. Except, yes, I did that.

Bartlet: Josh, I’m a little confused.

Lyman: Sir, there was this idiotic round robin. It was sarcastic. There’s no way they didn’t know that. They were just mad at me for imposing discipline and calling them stupid!

Bartlet: Okay, before we go on. CJ, if blood is gushing from the head wound you just received from a stampeding herd of bison, you’ll do the press briefing.

Cregg: Yes sir.

Lyman: Mr. President…

Bartlet: A secret plan to fight inflation?

Lyman: There was no turning them back. I denied it for half an hour. They wouldn’t take no for an answer.

Bartlet: Were you clear?

Lyman: I was crystal clear. They said, ‘Do you think if the President has a plan to fight inflation, it’s right that he keep it a secret?’ I said, ‘Of course not!’

Bartlet: Are you telling me that not only did you invent a secret plan to fight inflation, but now you don’t support it?

Lyman: [looks stunned] When you put it like that…

Ziegler: Mr. President, much as we’d love nothing more than to stand here and watch you beat the living crap outta Josh, there’s actually a bigger fish to fry.

If it is sometimes unclear how old Lyman and Seaborn are, this episode pegs them squarely as barely out of their twenties, if that. Smart but inexperienced in life and their respective professions. Prone to the arrogance of privileged youth, and the preoccupations of minutiae that obscure a more strategic perspective. As it actually transpires in the real world.

Ziegler mocks Seaborn's celestial navigation.
Ziegler mocks Seaborn’s celestial navigation.

These thoughts occurred to me not just because Lyman was shown as astonishingly arrogant in replying to a generous and friendly warning by Concannon, but also because Sam Seaborn mentions celestial navigation as he and Ziegler drive lost and apparently aimlessly to Mendoza’s gaol. The way he mentions it suggests he knows what celestial navigation is, but the fact that they are lost implies he has no clear idea of how to make it work in practice.

It is the Le Carrè lesson again. Seaborn and Ziegler set out on a planned mission, but the way that mission pans out is more improvisation than plan. I am not well read enough to know whether the whole idea of two starlight emissaries is borrowed from Shakespeare, but it almost has that flavour about it. Characters like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern?

The ending of the episode is more humour, albeit truncated cleverly, as Lyman, in the lecture theatre, tells everyone he can’t talk about why he’s been taking calls throughout his talk, but that he’s now ready to take questions …

‘Oh no. Not again,’ we think in a kindly way.

Credits

  • Written by Aaron Sorkin from a story by Dee Dee Myers and Lawrence O’Donnell Jr. Directed by Christopher Misiano. First aired on 16 February 2000.

  • 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 CCH Pounder as Deborah O’Leary, Timothy Busfield as Danny Concannon, Janel Moloney as Donna Moss, Robert David Hall as David Nessler, Vaughn Armstrong as Sgt MacNamara.

  • Special appearance by Edward James Olmos as Judge Roberto Mendoza.

  • Co-starring NiCole Robinson as Margaret Hooper, Kim Webster as Ginger, Melissa Fitzgerald as Carol Fitzpatrick, Devika Parikh as Bonnie.

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