The West Wing: The Short List

“You fought in a war, got me elected, and you run the country. I think we all owe you one, don't you?”

The President has to nominate a candidate for Supreme Court Justice, but there’s a problem with his staff’s choice. Meanwhile, a rather mean-seeming congressman accuses 1 in 3 of the White House Staff of using illegal drugs in a suspected attempt to bring down Leo.

For all their self-sure cockiness bordering on arrogance, one of the reasons we love the West Wing gang is that when they realise they’ve got it wrong, they are usually willing to acknowledge that, and do whatever they can to put it right. We open this episode with everyone at their most irritatingly self-congratulatory, but as it slowly dawns on them all that they might have made a mistake, they eventually do the right thing and make Commander Adama Supreme Court Justice, which is obviously an excellent idea.

Bartlet is the first to think that maybe they shouldn’t be so pleased with themselves, and we are reminded here why he is the President and not any of the others. Everyone spends the episode telling Bartlet not to worry about things – they’ve gone with Harrison for their nominee, don’t worry about the drugs stuff. Bartlet, following a meeting with the outgoing Supreme Court Justice which has left him somewhat shaken up, spends most of the episode trying to get everyone to think a bit more deeply about what they’re doing. In the end, of course, he’s right, because he really is one of the most intelligent people there, even if his tendency to remind everyone of that can be annoying sometimes.

Of course, the other reason Bartlet is the President is that Leo, who everyone freely acknowledges runs the country, is ineligible for election due to his history with alcohol and drugs. Apparently the alcoholism itself (in pre-W Bush days, I’m guessing before America had a President with an admitted history with alcoholism? My knowledge of American Presidents is limited) isn’t the biggest problem, but rather the pills, which are, Josh says, less socially acceptable. Lillienfield, who just seems really mean, has got it in for Leo and they suspect he plans to lead the press right to Leo’s door in an attempt to get rid of him, though Josh, of course, is having none of that.

Leo’s problem leads us directly back to the Supreme Court justice nomination because the thing that Bartlet and Harrison fundamentally disagree on is privacy. Harrison would have no problem performing drugs tests on every member of staff at the White House and presumably wouldn’t object to Leo’s past being laid open to public scrutiny either. Toby (who doesn’t know about Leo yet) tests Mendoza by asking him what he’d say to someone being fired because they refused to take a drugs test and Mendoza says he’d reinstate them because it would be an illegal search – it’s this that convinces Toby to back him. We’ll charitably see this as neat narrative dove-tailing, and not our heroes making sure they get a Supreme Court Justice who’ll be on their side.

All in all, it’s nice to see what looks like a defeat turned into a victory as we end up with a better Supreme Court Justice candidate than the one we started with. It’s implied that the staff initially overlooked Mendoza because he’s Hispanic, and that choosing him is a brave step towards a more inclusive society – since I have no knowledge whatsoever of the American justice system or US race relations in the late 1990s, I take this at face value and assume that choosing him is therefore a good thing! Of course, Harrison really lost it when he called Sam ‘some kid’ and I think we may also be supposed to infer that he’s a little bit racist from the fact he can’t remember Charlie (though personally I refuse to judge him for that as I frequently forget people’s faces, regardless of race). It all makes for a satisfying episode; I’ll even forgive them for rejecting someone called Harrison.

Bits ‘n’ pieces

 - Gail the goldfish is introduced! Gail the goldfish is awesome. Look out for thematically appropriate decorations in her tank in future episodes.

 - On that subject, Danny’s pursuit of CJ is one of those things that’s really cute on television, but would be harassment bordering on stalking in real life, like Niles and Daphne from Frasier. To be fair though, this episode makes it pretty clear that she does also like him and it’s the career conflict that’s holding her back.

 - Josh and Donna’s interplay over his ceiling falling in is great and really demonstrates how much chemistry they have with each other.

 - It was only looking up the cast afterwards that I realised Mendoza looked a bit familiar because he was played by Edward James Olmos. I literally did not recognise him under that moustache (see above re: not good with faces).

Quotes

Mrs Landingham: Is it done?
Josh: Well, that depends on your answer to this question, Mrs Landingham; who da
man?
Mrs Landingham: Excuse me, Josh?
Josh: Who da man?
Mrs Landingham You da man.

Bartlet: This is huge. Which one of you is the man?
Toby: On this one, we'd like to think of ourselves collectively as the men, sir.

C.J.: I got to tell you something, Toby. You're hot when you're like this.

Josh: Why shouldn't I get my hopes up?
Donna: Because when it doesn't work out, you end up drunk in my apartment in the middle of the night and yell at my roommate's cats.

Crouch: Mendoza was on the short list so you can show you had an Hispanic on the short list.

Crouch: You ran great guns in the campaign. It was an insurgency, boy, a sight to see. And then you drove to the middle of the road the moment after you took the oath. Just the middle of the road. Nothing but a long line painted yellow.
Bartlet: Excuse me, sir...
Crouch: I wanted to retire five years ago. But I waited for a Democrat. I wanted a Democrat. And instead I got you.

Josh: You should be nice to me. I could be dead you know.
Donna: I don't have that kind of luck.

Josh: You're Leo McGarry. You're not going to be taken down by this small fraction of a man. I won't permit it.

CJ: What are you holding?
Danny: It’s a goldfish.
CJ: Why?
Danny: It’s for you.
CJ: Really?
Danny: Josh said you like goldfish.
CJ (laughing hysterically): The crackers, Danny, the cheese things that you have at a party.
Danny: You know what, I’m not 100% sure I was supposed to know that.

Harrison: Were you just calling me a fool, Mr. Seaborn?
Sam: I wasn't calling you a fool, sir. The brand new state of Georgia was.

CJ/Danny cuteness and a happy ending means this surely deserves at least three out of four goldfish crackers.

Juliette Harrisson is a freelance writer, classicist and ancient historian who blogs about Greek and Roman Things in Stuff at Pop Classics.

7 comments:

gwensdad2003 said...

Mendoza's moustache is the prelude to the legendary ADAMASTACHE a few years later.

sunbunny said...

I can't believe you didn't recognize Edward James Olmos! You really are bad with faces! :)

As far as I know, Bush was the first president who admitted to being a recovering alcoholic. As for Hispanic Supreme Court Justices, in the real world, Sonia Sotomayor was the first and that was just four years ago.

I agree with you on the Danny/CJ thing. It would border awfully close to stalking or sexual harassment in the real world, but is pretty darn cute on TV.

ChrisB said...

This is a fun episode. I love it when people outside the inner circle take one of them to task, and the speech that Crouch gives Bartlet is a thing of beauty.

Re-watching this episode fourteen years after it aired, it is interesting to note how on the nose the writers were. Privacy has become the hot issue and gay marriage is now constitutional. In this episode, even Mendoza shies away from the topic.

As you point out, there is a great deal of chemistry in this episode. CJ and Danny have it; Donna and Josh have it; Josh and Mandy do not. The writers keep trying with that last pair, but it never seems quite right to me.

Juliette said...

SPOILER ALERT.....
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I was so glad they got rid of Mandy after season 1 - she just doesn't work as a character for me! And she definitely doesn't have much chemistry with Josh. With Donna and later Joey around, she was completely superfluous!

orfeo said...

I don't think it's correct that they initially rejected Mendoza because he was Hispanic. They rejected him because they thought it would be too difficult to have his nomination approved by the Senate. The script also suggests that having at least one Hispanic on the short list was considered a 'politically correct' thing to do, even if they had no intention of him being the final choice.

Billie Doux said...

C.J. and Danny. Now that's a couple I can ship with glee. The pursuit, the banter, the goldfish -- they're adorable. They're only ever so slightly cuter than Josh and Donna.

I am such a leftie that I would totally get behind Edward James Olmos on the Supreme Court, and I mean Olmos himself, not the character he played here. And so say we all.

Josie Kafka said...

Adama for president!