The West Wing S01E20: Mandatory Minimums

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The course of history has overshadowed some of the enthusiastic optimism of the fictional Bartlet administration, and no more so than for this episode, which features policy examples that have all worsened rather than improved over time. On top of that historical scuffing of the gloss, the episode is less a coherent whole than a roll-over continuity play. More like glue rather than the pieces it holds together, or a pause in the ongoing narrative, like a breath between sentences. I suppose it is testament to the fact the show had ‘arrived’ that it did not seem out of place for this episode to be a loose collection of anecdotes, none strong enough to be a unifying core theme, but all necessary to lead into future episodes.

Following the pep talk at the end of the last episode, the team follows through: the President announces that he’s picked the federal election commissioners, arrogating to himself a privilege traditionally the domain of congressional choice. Josh Lyman gets to tell Steve Onorato’s boss to shove his legislative agenda up his arse. Onorato was the Senate majority leader’s chief of staff who had threatened Lyman in the last episode with a Republican obstructionist legislative agenda, including a bill on English as the national language, if the President didn’t observe the convention to keep the electoral commission inert.

The on-screen moment has lost much of its power since the Obama presidency. So many high hopes for a reformist Democrat came to almost nothing. The prospect of anyone telling the Republicans to go fuck themselves seems more remote than ever.

Outdoor breakfast for our protagonists. Some rare Washington footage.
Outdoor breakfast for our protagonists. Some rare Washington footage.

The challenge for Bartlet was to be smart enough to beat the Republicans no matter what the numbers were. And that remains the challenge for Democrats today. It’s no good endlessly crying about a hostile congress. That’s why Bartlet and his people remain the most legendary Democrats that never were. Because they beat a hostile congress. Not just once, but every season. The real Democrats give all the appearance of never having tried to beat their foes, instead moving to the right and becoming a de-facto wing of the GOP.

Fifteen years after the show premiered, and seven after I first saw it, campaign funding not only remains exactly the subversion of democracy it was in the 1990s, but has become infinitely worse. Dementia-prone supreme court judges have since ruled that corporations are natural people and should not be constrained from buying government. Even Sorkin could not have imagined a more bizarrely fascisto-corporatist plot-twist.

As for the mandatory minimums issue, we can now see very clearly how conservatives in the 1990s and ensuring decade used law and order rhetoric to re-introduce slavery, stocking privatised for-profit gaols with a generation of black and Hispanic children and men. The law and order pretext thinly veils an American apartheid, with the introduction of one law for Caucasians, and another for everyone else. White drug abusers get wrist-slapped for the same offences that see people with coloured skin incarcerated for decades, so they can be used as slave labour.

It has been the most shameful subversion of human rights in history for its hypocrisy and brazen persistence. Even Leo McGarry’s big stick, carpeting staffers of legislators who benefited from light drug sentences for relatives, loses a bit of its once dramatic sparkle in the shadow of the gulags that have since been established across North America.

At the time, however …

… the biggest endorsement for “West Wing” as civics lesson may have come from Robert Stutman, a former Drug Enforcement Administration agent who participated in a PBS panel this summer for the “Frontline” special “Drug Wars.”

“The most intelligent discussion I’ve heard among politicians concerning the drug issue … was on ‘The West Wing,’ and it was President Josiah Bartlet,” Stutman volunteered.

— Gail Pennington, 4 October 2000, ‘Hail to “The West Wing”’, St Louis Post-Dispatch, cited by the West Wing Episode Guide.

Unfortunately it was not a lesson taken to heart by those who dominate Washington.

'I'm not sleeping with Al Kiefer anymore.' Joey Lucas observing White House proprieties.
‘I’m not sleeping with Al Kiefer anymore.’ Joey Lucas observing White House proprieties.

The episode’s diversionary sub-plots seem a little flat to me. There is a breakfast meeting that might have been staged outdoors simply to insert the periodic Washington footage taken for verité, and squeezed into the predominantly set-bound Los Angeles production.

The Josh Lyman-Joey Lucas infatuation shtick is revived. The whole thing was just ridiculous. Not even a teenage kid would boast to his father that he’s made a present of a cup to the object of his hormonal crush. CJ makes a minor blunder blown up into hysterical proportions, stretching suspension of disbelief. Seaborn is almost set up by Onorato with the Rollins baggage. Yawn, yawn.

The president’s revolving bedroom consultation scene was amusing the first few times, but declines in entertainment value the more my own limited sleep-time is interrupted carelessly by others.

More Washington verite for a meeting between the exes.
More Washington verite for a meeting between the exes.

If it’s possible to steal the show, Richard Schiff snatched that honour. Again. Probably cementing his Emmy win later in the year. Toby Ziegler’s discomfort is excruciating in having to deal with his ex-wife, Maryland Congresswoman Andrea Wyatt (Kathleen York). Watching these two performers together you might almost think they had really been married. Ziegler is so ill at ease in Wyatt’s presence that it becomes almost painful to watch; she punches all his buttons so well it’s a surprise the fictional marriage did not end in murder.

In reading about Sorkin’s reputation as a ‘difficult’ creative, I wonder how much he might have interfered in this episode, and some others, rather than allowing the director and the players to interpret and present his lines. There is such a thing as over-engineering an artefact, and maybe Sorkin’s obsessive focus on the cadences of his dialogue might not always have made it easy to complete and edit an episode on a timeline indifferent to the writer’s perfectionism.

Still, if that was the cause for the disjointed feel of this episode, it was not a critical flaw. Creative people have to take risks, and not all risks pay off the same way as others, or immediately. Some foundations anchored here become solid structures further into the West Wing saga.

Postscript

The 2016 American primaries have again trained a spotlight on political records, and confirmed a less than liberal, reformist, or admirable perspective on the Clinton administration of 1993-2001. The Nation, already declared in supporting Bernie Sanders, published a pretty damning article in February 2016 (Michelle Alexander, ‘ Why Hillary Clinton Doesn’t Deserve the Black Vote’) outlining that the law and order, and welfare policies of President Clinton are exactly the policies critiqued in The West Wing, leading to mass incarcerations of black Americans, and lying about employment statistics by excluding the newly enslaved blacks from unemployment figures. Effectively these black Americans have become the civil dead, written off as real people, and therefore also from policy agenda.

After the greatly anticipated election of Barack Obama, a realisation set in that this Democrat was in fact no better than a moderate Republican, meaning he was a less barbarian choice than his Republican opponents, but not at all ‘liberal’ or reformist.

If this seems incongruous, it would be worth considering whether the label ‘Democrat’ actually denotes a significant difference from the label ‘Republican’ in the post-Reagan polity, and whether it would not be more useful to examine policy positions and actions as indicators of where candidates and elected representatives fall on the political spectrum people like to talk about.

In my view there hasn’t been a liberal president since Jimmy Carter. The Reagan revolution shifted nominal Democrats to an increasingly disconcerting anti-liberal right. I wonder whether Sorkin was having thoughts along similar lines sixteen years ago. Maybe as uncomfortable suspicions.

Credits

  • Written by Aaron Sorkin. Directed by Robert Berlinger. First aired on 3 may 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: Marlee Matlin as Joey Lucas.

  • Guest starring Timothy Busfield as Danny Concannon, John de Lancie as Al Kiefer, Janel Moloney as Donna Moss, Suzy Nakamura as Cathy, Bruce Weitz as senate majority leader, Kathleen York as Representative Andy Wyatt, Bill O’Brien as Kenny Thurman, Paul Provenza as Steve Onorato.

  • Co-starring Kathryn Joosten as Dolores Landingham, NiCole Robinson as Margaret Hooper, Chris Conner as Reporter Jack, Melissa Fitzgerald as Carol Fitzpatrick, Kris Murphy as Katie Witt, Kim Webster as Ginger, Devika Parikh as Bonnie, Charles Noland as reporter Steve, Mindy Seeger as Reporter Chris, JP Stevenson as reporter Jonathan.

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.