The West Wing S01E16: 20 Hours in LA


This one’s my favourite episode for season one, but for reasons that have changed a little bit over time. Initially it was the Zoey Bartlet secret service bodyguard Gina Toscano interview on Air Force One, and the private Ted Marcus conversation at the fundraiser. Today it is probably more the almost-reconciliation between Bartlet and Hoynes over the ethanol tax credit nonsense, and the dig at producers delivered by the MBA-type hustlers at Ted Marcus’s party, who are unable to explain what Hollywood ‘developers’ actually do, and what ‘development’ actually involves. Not that the other events aren’t also important for the overall impact of the show.

If the methanol tax credit issue can stand in for all the stupid shenanigans played out for political point-scoring, it certainly touches three big preoccupations: a scheme that has no merits, save offering an economic rent for worthless endeavour; political manoeuvring for point scoring rather than any real or imagined national benefit; and demands that the Vice President reverse himself and eat humble pie just so the President wins.

McGarry: The President needs you to go down there and fulfill one of your two constitutional responsibilities and vote for the ethanol tax credit. We need you to break the tie. He also wanted me to tell you that he regrets putting you in this position.

Hoynes: You got to get me off the hook, Leo. You can’t ask me to do this.

McGarry: John, I know exactly how you feel.

Hoynes: No, Leo, I don’t think you do.

McGarry: I know…

Hoynes: I spent 8 years in the Senate voting against this exact tax credit. I was right, by the way, and I’m still right, but the point is…

McGarry: 16,000 new jobs. 4 billion dollars invested in plants and equipment, because the tax credit made it economical.

Hoynes: Leo, the ethanol tax credit has accomplished exactly none of its goals. Production is close to nothing. It will never be large enough to reduce our dependence on foreign oil. And it requires substantial energy to produce, which totally washes out any overall conservation effect.

McGarry: John?

Hoynes: But that’s not the point.

McGarry: What’s the point?

Hoynes: The Republicans will make me eat it for dinner when my time comes. And you know that. So let’s get serious.

It is definitely one of the more convincing exchanges, and it ends when Hoynes digs in, Sam Seaborn agrees it’s a bad bill, and a decision is made to lose the vote by a few to cover up evidence of a tie that could have been resolved in the President’s favour by his Vice President.

That little piece of time-wasting sophistry accords so closely with my own experience of politics — local, state, or national — that I was instantly drawn into the West Wing ‘family’, so to speak. At this stage of the season, it’s like coming ‘home’ after a hard day at the office. If this is how television shows succeed or fail, Sorkin and his directors hit some notes and melodies absent in other shows: you wanted to know what was going on with cousins Josh and Sam, you wondered how their friend Donna was doing. You always enjoy the latest instalments of tales about the nutty professor posing as the president, and you like your quiet little asides with CJ and Leo.

And so it went, with the teeth-grinding imbecility of the people in the meeting about a constitutional amendment to ban flag-burning, the typically killjoy intervention of the President to ruin Zoey’s lunch, and the rude banality of Al Kiefer sitting a table away, pitching the dopey idea to ‘lead the charge’. The hustler idea that winning means everything, no matter that the reason for winning has been thrown in a ditch and set alight with gasoline.

Al Kiefer helping to ruin Zoey's lunch with his hustler's pitch to 'lead the charge' on flag burning.
Al Kiefer helping to ruin Zoey’s lunch with his hustler’s pitch to ‘lead the charge’ on flag burning.

In some senses the run-in between Lyman and Ted Marcus was a predictable swipe at the arrogance of Hollywood money, but the meeting between the President and Marcus was riveting television for me.

Marcus: Mr. President, I don’t need to tell you that I’ve got a large microphone at my disposal, and I’m going to demand that you publicly announce that you’re going to veto Cameron’s bill if it passes.

Bartlet: It’s not going to pass, Ted. It’s not going to get voted on.

Marcus: No, I’m saying as a gesture, as a symbol.

Bartlet: And I’m saying as a gesture, as a symbol, you make that public demand, Ted, and you’re going to be Cameron’s best friend.

Marcus: The people in my house want this. And they’re complaining to me that you take their money and run, without listening.

Bartlet: Oh, God, Ted! Give me the name of one person who’s complaining to you, and I’ll call them personally and tell them I will never sign a law like that.

Marcus: Well, then why won’t you…

Bartlet: Ted.

Marcus: Why won’t you say that publicly?

Bartlet: [yells] Because I know what I’m doing, Ted! Because I live in the world of professional politics, and you live in the world of adolescent tantrum! Don’t you ever slap Josh Lyman around again. That guy is the White House Deputy Chief of Staff. He’s not one of your associate producers.

Marcus: You’re right.

Bartlet: Don’t screw around with me now, Ted. I’m really not in the mood.

Marcus: I mean it. You’re right.

Bartlet: Right now, right this second, the worst thing that could possibly happen to gay rights in this country is for me to put that thing on the debating table, which is happens the minute I open my mouth. Do you get that? I’m a human starting gun, Ted. You got to trust me! I know what I’m doing.

Marcus: I trust you, Mr. President.

Bartlet: Do you?

Marcus: Yes, I do. And I like you, too.

Bartlet: Thank you.

Marcus: Have you enjoyed yourself tonight?

Bartlet: No.

Marcus: Me neither. If you don’t mind my saying so, Mr President, you look more tired than you did when I saw you a couple of months ago.

Bartlet: Imagine how tired I’m going to look when you see me a couple of months from now. I haven’t slept well, lately. Kept everyone up on the plane as we flew out. You know, we left at 3 in the morning? I really want to try to sleep on the way back.

It’s one of the better exchanges in the series, creating one of Balaban’s best rôles, and explaining quite a bit about Sorkin’s love-hate relationship with Hollywood, based on the notion that money can buy anything at all, including souls.

As a wider metaphor it is also a gentle framing of the most anti-democratic force in American politics: private power based on private wealth. Marcus’s comment to Lyman that he had been president longer than Bartlet was not idle chatter. Corporate captains being contemptuous of civic leaders is hardly news, and presidencies being bought — and sold — has been standard practice for some time.

More obliquely, it is interesting to speculate whether Sorkin was giving us a clue to his president’s character: being an annoyingly smartarse bore might be his way of dealing with stress. An authentic little touch that does nothing to remediate the irritating quality of the smartarsery.
It is still less irritating than watching Lyman behaving like a campus virgin in his pathetic attempts to act on his infatuation with Joey Lucas. Even with Donna Moss’s prompting he’s not up to the job, and gets what he deserves: Lucas doesn’t have the time to wait around until Lyman can work up the nerve. Still, Kiefer seems like the most odious choice possible, and I can’t stop thinking of the guy as Q from Star Trek: The Next Generation.


  • Written by Aaron Sorkin. Directed by Alan Taylor. First aired on 23 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.

  • Special appearances by David Hasselhoff as himself, Jay Leno as himself, Veronica Webb as herself.

  • Special guest stars: Marlee Matlin as Joey Lucas; Bob Balaban as Ted Marcus; Tim Matheson as Vice President John Hoynes.

  • Guest starring Jorja Fox as Agent Gina Toscano, Janel Moloney as Donna Moss, Elisabeth Moss as Zoey Bartlet, John de Lancie as Al Kiefer, Bill O’Brien as Kenny Thurman, Michael O’Neill as Secret Service Agent Ron Butterfield, Chris Hogan as Mark Miller.

  • Co-starring NiCole Robinson as Margaret Hooper, William Duffy as Larry, Peter James Smith as Ed, Robert Pine as Greer. Juan A Riojas as Secret Service Agent.

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