West Wing S01E21: Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics

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There’s a return to focus in this episode. It’s on-message. Sorkin treats us to a conveniently cheeky stratagem to stack the electoral commission, some amusement to illustrate the tedious, nerve-wracking business of national polling, and the final instalment of the Sam Seaborn relationship with high class callgirl, and freshly minted law graduate, Laurie Rollins.

In its focus on electoral reform this episode shows its age. The game has entirely eclipsed the iniquities of the past to rise to new heights of partisan bastardry. For a long time, The West Wing was revered for proposing a Democrat agenda, should they ever reclaim the White House after Clinton’s less than glorious exit. It was part of the show’s lasting status as high quality television.

As I mentioned in my last comment, about the glue rather than the pieces, the breath between sentences, this episode is one of the pieces, and one of the sentences: Bartlet executes shenanigans to give substance to his fool’s errand of upsetting the Capitol Hill inertia on electoral reform.

The shell game of rearranging ambassadors, firing one, and creating a new one, to open up another seat on the commission so that electoral reform becomes reality, is both amusing to watch, especially for Charlie Young’s moment of satisfaction with a bigoted stuffed shirt, and also realistic in suggesting reform doesn’t get itself done. Someone has to drive it and take chances to break a deadlock, and to overcome unfavourable numbers on Capitol Hill. But also to reap the rewards: the bump in the polling numbers that is the episode’s denouement is not incidental, even if logically unconnected.

A bigot is sacked, and Charlie Young tries not to be too smug about it.
A bigot is sacked, and Charlie Young tries not to be too smug about it.

Sadly, the soft money reforms mentioned in this storyline are no longer relevant, having been superseded by an even bigger subversion of democratic principles—the Citizens United conspiracy bought from a paid-for Supreme Court.

The recent history of American election funding is an embarrassing chronology of corruption and surrender to a deliberate strategy of ‘gangsterising’ elections. The Nixon administration began the process with its Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971, permitting Nixon’s party machine to squirrel away donations in slush-funds to finance extra-governmental activities like the Watergate break-in, among many other questionable pursuits. The Act was amended in 1974 to limit campaign financing, and to establish the Federal Election Commission (FEC) that is at the heart of the Bartlet subterfuge. The FEC purportedly functioned ‘to disclose campaign finance information, to enforce the provisions of the law such as the limits and prohibitions on contributions, and to oversee the public funding of Presidential elections.’ — Boundless

Another change in 1979, likely emanating from the plutocrat-funded Reagan Republican renaissance, but imposed by the FEC itself, allowed for ‘soft money’ contributions, being essentially limitless donations for purposes labelled as other than direct electioneering. This permitted the consolidation of political action committees (PACs) as direct electioneering agents. They became propaganda and dirty tricks machines to smear and hamper opponents even if pretending to be at arm’s length from campaigns proper. Nixon would have felt vindicated. The Washington Post offered a 1997 summary that seemed oddly deferential to patently corrupt practices, but at least lists some of the major features of electoral regulation. Perhaps it is even a piece Sorkin himself used to background his script.

That was the state of play for the Bartlet White House. And stacking the FEC with reform-minded commissioners would indeed have allowed for rolling back some of the Watergate-style subterfuge extant at the time.

Looking at the episode now, though, it appears that Sorkin avoided another hugely important axis of electoral corruption: gerrymandering. And his vision was entirely superseded by the manifestly corrupt actions of a Supreme Court demonstrating that its own decisions could be bought in handing down the inexplicably deranged Citizens United fiction, whereby a corporation is seen to have the same legal rights (but not responsibilities) as a natural person, and should therefore not be restricted in the amount of money it could spend on political dirty tricks. The details of the Supreme Court’s betrayal of the American people are summarised in a characteristically pusillanimous, but essentially readable way in a 2012 New York Times.

A contemporary reformer could not use the FEC to overturn the Citizens United debacle: it would require an Act of Congress, and therefore an absolute majority of reform-minded Representatives and Senators. That becomes a significant challenge not amenable to Bartlet tricks. At least not without first tackling another issue entirely: gerrymandering. And President Obama does not appear to have even tried to tilt at that windmill, calling to mind Toby Ziegler in episode 19, reproaching Leo McGarry in raised voice: ‘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!’

The practice of gerrymandering is not unique to the USA, but the name, legend has it, traces back to Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry, who signed legislation to re-draw state senate election districts in 1812, favouring his Democratic-Republican Party (how things have stayed the same, eh?). One of the new districts was said to resemble a salamander in shape. A local journalist concatenated Gerry and salamander to make Gerry-mander.

Photographed by a scandal rag.  Seaborn congratulates Rollins on her graduation from law school.
Photographed by a scandal rag. Seaborn congratulates Rollins on her graduation from law school.

The practice is the deliberate redrawing of electorate boundaries to maximise the chance of a party to capture more seats than its opposition, even if that opposition has more support. It is done by looking at each polling station’s returns to identify which way a locality votes, and then to redraw boundaries to ensure that workable majorities of favourable votes exist within the redrawn boundaries, while confining strong support for the opposition within as few as possible new boundaries.

So, theoretically, if you can confine ninety per cent of a party’s vote to a single electorate, and the remaining ten per cent of the vote for another party in three separate electorates, you will get three to one majority representation for the nine to one minority party. If that’s too hard to conceive of, it is well explained, with a visual, in a 2015 Washington Post article.

The problem in addressing gerrymandering is that electorate boundaries are not determined by a central authority in the USA, and separate, sustained efforts would be required at local, state and federal levels to address the issue. Unless, of course, an enterprising Washington ginger group could devise a way of centralising the control of electoral boundaries.

The Democrats really had a chance in the West Wing era, but Clinton squandered his chance at reform to pursue vainglory and personal gratification instead, and the Republicans caved in to almost any demand to subvert democracy in favour of corporate money. These developments date the Bartlet reform agenda, and its actions portrayed in this episode, in a way that makes it sentimentally congenial, but also unrealistic and less satisfying than it once was.

Less confounded by time and tide was the continuation of the Onorato move, initiated last episode, to position Seaborne publicly for a swipe at his relationship with Laurie Rollins. A friend of Laurie is paid to arrange a tryst between her and Seaborne after her graduation ceremony, and despite Toby Ziegler’s repeated admonishment he cannot be seen with Rollins, Seaborn, being the naïve boy scout he is, can’t help himself. He meets Laurie in a night-time street scene to deliver a graduation present. He is, however, photographed embracing Rollins by someone working for a British scandal rag, no doubt owned by Rupert Murdoch, the arch enemy of democracy wherever it still raises its head, and the arch purveyor of scandal, amut, and lies. Although tedious in its artlessness, the Seaborn-Rollins interlude leads Ziegler to defend his lieutenant with a well-delivered line I have always enjoyed:

Ziegler (to the President): I know it’s strange, sir. But I’m feeling a certain big brotherly connection right now. You know, obviously, I’d like that feeling to go away as soon as possible, but for the moment I think there’s no danger in the White House standing by Sam and aggressively going after the people who set him up.

I thought, though, that a smart-arse president, well versed in scriptures, might have come up with something more biblical than: ‘It’s nice when we can do something for prostitutes once in a while, isn’t it?’ Something about Mary Magdalen, maybe, or even something more Old Testament, if only to tweak the noses of conservative viewers (god forbid there were any!), and critics, who seemed able, at the time, to critique the show while suggesting they wouldn’t watch such ‘liberal’ hogwash.

The language of Shakespeare argument, as all wait for the polling numbers.
The language of Shakespeare argument, as all wait for the polling numbers.

I did enjoy the depiction of the polling itself, which was and remains a hugely expensive, tense, and significant event in any political machine. The methods may have become more sophisticated and efficient, but I suspect the nail-biting anticipation remains an ageing experience for the pollsters, and those whose fortunes are gauged by the emerging numbers.

What mystified me was how indifferent the protagonists seemed to be to the excellent results. The outcome should have led to a party no less indulgent than the confirmation of Mendoza to the Bench. In this episode it is dismissed as if it were just another item on a day’s list of things to do.

It did lead to one of the better lines in an otherwise asinine verbal sparring match between Josh Lyman and Joey Lucas, which concludes with Lucas dismissing the possibility of a Republican-sponsored Bill to make English the national language: ‘…I’d mention to Monsieur de Tocqueville, over here, that aside from it being bigoted and unconstitutional, it’s ludicrous to think that laws need to be created to help protect the language of Shakespeare.’

It’s a great line. never mind that not even British English today, let alone the American variant, is close to being the language of Shakespeare, or that Republicans today are exactly as dumb, bigoted, and feckless as the kind of imbeciles who would seriously run such a bill through Congress.

Credits

  • Written by Aaron Sorkin. Directed by Don Scardino. First aired on 10 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 Lisa Edelstein as Laurie Rollins, Timothy Busfield as Danny Concannon, Thom Gossom Jr as Ted Mitchell, David Huddleston as Senator Max Lobell, Janel Moloney as Donna Moss, Austin Pendleton as Barry Haskel, Lawrence Pressman as Ken Cochran, Reiko Aylesworth as Janeane, Renee Estevez as Nancy, Bill O’Brien as Kenny Thurman.

  • Co-starring NiCole Robinson as Margaret Hooper, Devika Parikh as Bonnie, Kim Webster as Ginger, Kris Murphy as Katie Witt, Melissa Fitzgerald as Carol Fitzpatrick, Justin Colvin as Rodney, Sherry Houston as Dan Larson, Conrad Bachmann as Ken Kato, MG Mills as Rob Konrad, Bruce Wright as Ross Kassenbach, Peter James Smith as Ed, William Duffy as Larry.

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.