The West Wing S01E17: The White House Pro-Am

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During the Clinton administration in the 1990s, the first lady was less passive than most since Eleanor Roosevelt. She had what is politely called ‘an agenda’. Meaning she arrogated to herself the privilege and power of a high but unelected state functionary. Hillary Clinton pursued ‘liberal’ causes that her husband thought too tough to fight in his own name. Her major project, the 1993 healthcare plan, failed to materialise. She is credited with playing a significant rôle in child health and welfare reforms. Subsequent to Bill Clinton’s presidency she did seek and win public office, in time losing the Democrat primary to Barack Obama, who made her his secretary of state.

In pursuing her agenda, though, she demonstrated adherence to a characteristic Clinton quality. I declare openly that I belong to the Christopher Hitchens school of sceptics (No one Left to Lie To, and various subsequent commentaries), perceiving both Clintons as mercenary machine politicians who broke every promise and betrayed every ally whenever that was expedient.

I may not have seen the episode against that background on my first viewing years ago, but I cannot now see it in any other context.

As the title suggests, if the first lady has an agenda, the White House risks becoming the battleground of both professional and amateur players in national politics. Worse, this could lead to mixed messages, and evidence of conflicts of interest.

The first lady's (children's) crusade.
The first lady’s (children’s) crusade.

Kicking off The White House Pro-Am with the children’s crusade, as a symbol of opposing slavery, seems poignant. The Clintons acted like Republicans when it came to creating a new form of slavery in the USA, which they didn’t invent, but certainly did nothing to dismantle: mandatory minimums and privatised gaols. It’s one of those human rights violations that would have earned perpetual UN censure if it occurred in any other nation. But in the USA it is not only legal to incarcerate a generation of black and Hispanic men for crimes no white man would do time for, but even worse, it now seems perfectly legal for such men to also be lynched in public – shot or beaten to death in broad daylight with little or no legal repercussion. That makes the finger-wagging about child slaves in India seem on par, like a moral sermon from a paedophile priest.

Sorkin, like me, did not see things that way sixteen years ago, and his perceptions about what has become of the USA were on show in the marvellous mini speech given by his character Will McAvoy (played by Jeff Daniels), in The Newsroom, who is presented as personally leaning towards the Republicans, but is introduced, in the first episode, bursting out of a stale panel discussion to pour acid on the contention that America is the greatest country in the world.

“Can you say why America is the greatest country in the world?” It’s not the greatest country in the world. That’s my answer… [turns to a panelist] Sharon, the NEA is a loser. Yeah, it accounts for a penny out of our paycheck, but he gets to hit you with it anytime he wants. It doesn’t cost money, it costs votes. It costs airtime and column inches. You know why people don’t like liberals? Because they lose. If liberals are so fucking smart, how come they lose so goddamn always? [turns to another panelist] And with a straight face, you’re gonna tell students that America is so star-spangled awesome that we’re the only ones in the world who have freedom? Canada has freedom. Japan has freedom. The UK, France, Italy, Germany, Spain, Australia, Belgium has freedom! So, 207 sovereign states in the world, like 180 of them have freedom. [turns to the student who asked the question]. And you—sorority girl—yeah—just in case you accidentally wander into a voting booth one day, there are some things you should know, and one of them is that there is absolutely no evidence to support the statement that we’re the greatest country in the world. We’re seventh in literacy, twenty-seventh in math, twenty-second in science, forty-ninth in life expectancy, 178th in infant mortality, third in median household income, number four in labor force, and number four in exports. We lead the world in only three categories: number of incarcerated citizens per capita, number of adults who believe angels are real, and defense spending, where we spend more than the next twenty-six countries combined, twenty-five of whom are allies. None of this is the fault of a 20-year-old college student, but you, nonetheless, are without a doubt, a member of the WORST-period-GENERATION-period-EVER-period, so when you ask what makes us the greatest country in the world, I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about?! Yosemite?!

All this to say that the politics presented in The White House Pro-Am have dated badly, and are likely to create more brow-wrinkling distractions than assisting in delivering the actual message, which — ironically — is about mixed messages! And the special relationship between the Bartlets that helps them resolve this difficulty, even if their staffers have to suffer for it first.

At this distance in time, it also seems oddly noteworthy that it is the second time, beginning with the Marbury sub-plot, that India has been singled out as a pretty savage, brutal place. It was and remains exactly that. I’m sure Sorkin had no intention in implying a certain similarity to the USA, or did he? But it’s there now, preserved for posterity.

'We want the news cycle.'  Lillie Mays with Sam Seaborn.
‘We want the news cycle.’ Lillie Mays with Sam Seaborn.

All the ballyhoo about the death of the fed reserve chair (wishful thinking, that one!) and the agenda Congresswoman Becky Reeseman wants to ride into a Senate seat are distractions here that may have resonated with the Clinton experience, but which seem a little stale and forced today. It’s the same for Sam Seaborn’s dance with the first lady’s chief of staff, Lilly Mays (Nadia Dajani); she’s doing the job she’s paid to do. If there’s fault here, it’s Leo McGarry’s for not setting ground rules, the way he did with Vice President Hoynes. Strangely, McGarry is entirely absent for this little comedy routine. Surely it should have been him, talking to his counterpart.

Not quite as dated is the extended lecture about a hundred years ago, first from Donna Moss to Josh Lyman, and then from Zoey Bartlet to Charlie Young, and then from Young to Zoey Bartlet. It offers up the best dialogue in the show. Zoey tells Young she can’t go to a club opening with him, as they had planned, because there have been death threats against him for dating a white woman, who is also the president’s daughter:

Zoey Bartlet: Listen to me. We can’t go Friday night.

Young: That’s ok. [pause] Why not?

Zoey Bartlet: [pause] Charlie, you’ve been getting death threats.

Young: From…

Zoey Bartlet: Yeah.

Young: ‘Cause of you.

Zoey Bartlet: Because of me and you, yeah. [Charlie looks hurt.]

Zoey Bartlet: There’s gonna be some kind of meeting or convention this weekend and … [glances at Gina] … Secret Service just doesn’t think…

Toscano: [walks over] We’ve tried to secure the place Charlie. [sits down next to Zoey Bartlet] We don’t like it. Two many dark corners, back alleys, doorways, windows. There’s locks, a cellar. We can’t secure the west end of the street.

Young: [angry] I don’t give a damn.

Zoey Bartlet: Charlie …

Young: [angry] I don’t give a damn! I bought a new suit. In fact, I’ve bought two now.

Zoey Bartlet: Charlie, we can’t go.

Young: Okay. [looks down at the notebook] Hey, look. It says here that a 100 years ago a black guy couldn’t show up to a club opening with a white girl for fear he’d be killed.

Zoey Bartlet: [Stares out the window, upset, then, to Toscano] I have to go to the ladies’ room. [Gina gets up, Zoey Bartlet slides out, walks away.]

Toscano: [into cuff mic] Bookbag’s up. [sits back down after Zoey Bartlet: leaves]

Young: You know, if nothing else…I think if either one of us is gonna be pissed it ought to be me.

Toscano: You’re looking at the girl whose job it is to jump in front of a bullet. I like it when she stays in the dorm and watches videos.

Charlie Young hears the bad news on why black men can get killed for dating white women.
Charlie Young hears the bad news on why black men can get killed for dating white women.

And that’s how the episode ends. After reporter Danny Concannon gives Young sage advice on how pressured a president’s daughter must feel, Young visits Zoey in her dorm with flowers, popcorn, and videos. Much to Toscano’s delight.

Postscript

The issues of child slavery in India, and slavery altogether, remains very much current. Rina Chandran, writing for Thomson Reuters, in a story ‘Indian police investigate workers and children held in debt bondage‘, offers evidence that slavery has not disappeared.

Activists expressed frustration, and said authorities failed to understand the definition of debt bondage.

The workers in Bathinda were brought from neighbouring Uttar Pradesh state last October with advance payments of 5,000 to 10,000 rupees ($73-$146), said Gangambika Sekhar, an advocate with Volunteers for Social Justice, which came across the case on a field visit.

They worked 14 to 16 hours a day with no access to basic amenities, and their wages were withheld, with only a subsistence allowance paid.

“It was a clear case of bonded labour, but the police and district officials are reluctant to even acknowledge it exists,” Sekhar said. “They think bonded labourers are kept in chains. The concept of debt bondage is still unfamiliar to them, so they deny it.”

Almost 36 million people are enslaved worldwide, trafficked into brothels, forced into manual labour, stuck in debt bondage or born into servitude, according to the 2014 Global Slavery Index.

The article doesn’t explore the issue outside of India, nor the complicity of Western corporations in slave labour, but it serves as a reminder that what was topical sixteen years ago may never have been positively addressed.

Credits

  • Written by Lawrence O’Donnell Jr, Paul Redford, and Aaron Sorkin. Directed by Ken Olin. First aired on 22 March 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 guest star: Stockard Channing as Abbey Bartlet.

  • Guest starring Amy Aquino as Congresswoman Becky Reeseman, Timothy Busfield as Danny Concannon, Nadia Dajani as Lilli Mays, Jorja Fox as Agent Gina Toscano, Janel Moloney as Donna Moss, Elisabeth Moss as Zoey Bartlet, Rolonda Watts as Melissa.

  • Co-starring Kathryn Joosten as Dolores Landingham, Melissa Fitzgerald as Carol Fitzpatrick, Kim Webster as Ginger, Ivan Allen as Roger Salier, Joe O’Connor as Congressman Calhoun.

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