The West Wing: S01E19 Let Bartlet Be Bartlet

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For all the talk in fan sites and snippets of media coverage about the haphazard writing of the scripts, the opening summary of this episode clearly shows a deliberate breadcrumb trail of suggestions, in previous episodes, that the Bartlet presidency has stalled. That summary tells us this will be the main focus of the present instalment.

Less clear to me is what the hell that nonsense with the weather was all about: Seaborn getting his information that it won’t rain until later from the coast guard, and a sudden burst of rain hitting the windows. In itself it was not enough to be a gag. Was it some truncated storyline about First Lieutenant Emily Lowenbrau of the US Coast Guard? Was it a joke about the name? Löwenbräu is a popular brand of lager in Bavaria; I know it well, though I would not ascribe to it infallibility in weather forecasting.

On the way to the trout fishermen.
On the way to the trout fishermen.

Was all that nonsense about the trout fishermen a long way of talking about a fishing expedition by Sorkin, dangling his own feet in controversies he knew little about?

That would have been clever indeed. Whatever the case may be about Sorkin’s cleverness, we quickly come to grips with Mandy Hampton’s leaked memo outlining how to beat Bartlet for re-nomination. Written for Lloyd Russell, that seems pretty legitimate sort of work for a political operative. Except … in this episode we learn that Hampton worked as media director for Bartlet prior to Russell, and then again as a consultant after Russell dropped his plans for nomination (episodes one to three). And she has no idea how the memo leaked. That seems … careless. But the point here seems to be that Hampton identified real weaknesses. The same ones that we previewed at the beginning of the episode. The president is weak because he overrides his reformist instincts to ‘drive to the middle of the road’. And, maybe, that it’s Leo McGarry that guides him to ‘safe’ ground.

Hampton gives the memo to Cregg.
Hampton gives the memo to Cregg.

Watching Josh Lyman tilt at the Republicans about federal electoral commissioners was fun. Perhaps perversely, because I share the predilection for digging my heels in quicker when I’m opposed by snotty, smug people.

Similarly, I enjoyed watching Sam Seaborn argue about gays in the military with the delegation of junior officers and staff assembled for that purpose. Though it’s pretty plain that Seaborn’s antagonists are right:

Ken: Sam, don’t ask, don’t tell, don’t pursue is the law. It’s federal law, and it takes an act of Congress to change it. If the President were serious about changing it, he’d be serious about changing it. He would not send you in here with me. He would not send you in here with two relatively junior DOD staffers. He’d call his staff together, he’d say, ‘I want a resolution in the House. I want 50 high-profile co-sponsors. I want a deal, and I want it now.’ Has the President done that?

Seaborn: The President’s veracity on this …

Ken: Has the President done that, Sam?

Seaborn: No.

Ken: Okay then… Is this meeting anything more than a waste of time?

Seaborn: No.

Ken: Okay then.

I suspect that both electoral reform and gays in the military are mentioned solely so Sorkin could mention the arguments for the kind of reforms that proved just too difficult or contretemps for successive administrations. And he manages to pack some pretty compelling reasons into the dialogue for Lyman and Seaborn.

Perhaps exploring these issues also serves as a reality check on how a reform agenda can be bogged down by long-standing, intractable blocks that actually require a crash-through-or-crash approach. That, or an acceptance that nothing can be changed.

Toby Ziegler gets the best line — again:

One victory in a year stinks in a life of an administration. But it’s not the ones we lose that bother me, Leo. It’s the ones we don’t suit up for! [pause] And I’m not too crazy about you questioning my loyalty just then.

The ending scene was stirring when I first saw it, and remains stirring. There’s something irresistible to me about the dedication of any small number of people to do what Leo proposes:

And we’re gonna lose some of these battles, and we might even lose the White House, but we’re not gonna be threatened by issues. We’re gonna put them front and center. We’re gonna raise the level of public debate in this country, and let that be our legacy.

'I serve at the pleasure of the President.'
‘I serve at the pleasure of the President.’

Credits

  • Written byAaron Sorkin from a story by Peter Parnell and Patrick Caddell. Directed by Laura Innes. First aired on 26 April 2000.

  • Special guest star John Amos as Admiral Percy Fitzwallace.

  • Guest starring Timothy Busfield as Danny Concannon, Janel Moloney as Donna Moss, Paul Provenza as Steve Onorato, Renee Estevez as Nancy, Richard Penn as Blakely, Aaron Lustig as Jerry Graham, James DuMont as Major Thompson, Ted Marcoux as Major Tate, David Brisbin as Congressman Ken, Andy Buckley as Congressman Mike Satchel.

  • Co-starring Kathryn Joosten as Dolores Landingham, NiCole Robinson as Margaret Hooper, Kim Webster as Ginger, Melissa Fitzgerald as Carol Fitzpatrick, Charles Noland as (reporter) Steve, Kris Murphy as Katie Witt.

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