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The West Wing: Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics

"What's next?"

The main thread that runs through this episode is a major poll about which all our girls and guys are very nervous. CJ thinks they're going to gain five points while everyone else is just hoping to hold steady or lose only a few points.

Polling means lots of CJ and lots of Joey Lucas, so it's always a good sign when an episode revolves around a poll. I love that CJ confronts Leo about not reporting her prediction to the President. She points out it wasn't women's intuition, probably trying to work out if he's being sexist or if he's still lacking confidence in her after the Mandy's-note fiasco. I love even more that she doesn't flinch when Leo storms into her office and slams the door. I love that she does all that even though she's genuinely concerned that she's screwed up too often and may end up getting fired. And of course, in the end, they went up nine points, even more than she predicted, and everyone realises that she was right and they were wrong. CJ is awesome.

This episode also sees the culmination of the Sam/Laurie story started in the pilot but not really followed up on for a while. Sam can't go to see Laurie (the call girl he slept with in the pilot) graduate law school because someone knows about her and it could be used to embarrass the White House – I would have thought the fact she's been breaking the law a lot and this might be brought to people's attention would be a bigger issue (though she did sort of cover that early on with something about state laws vs federal laws – but I'm not buying it). After they get snapped by the paparazzi while trying to meet quietly, Bartlet tells Sam to assure her that she'll be admitted if she passes the bar exam so I guess that's all OK in the end, but it does stretch credulity a bit. Still, it's a nice bookmark to their relationship, and I love Sam's insistence that Toby call her Laurie and not 'your friend' or 'this girl'.

Meanwhile, someone called Barry from the FEC comes to see Leo because we're still working our way through this arc about campaign finance reform and I'm really trying to care, I promise, but I just can't. I plead ignorant foreigner status on this one. Anyway, Leo tries to make Barry feel less nervous by having a Marine (Rodney) mess about with his loaded gun in the middle of the office. Interesting approach. Barry eventually works out they're trying to intimidate him right before Leo drags him into the Oval Office so Bartlet can emotionally blackmail him. Well, that's one way to get what you want. Then Bartlet gets together with someone who disagrees with him on everything else but agrees on this and it's all OK and I can stop trying to understand campaign finance reform now.

There's also a sub-plot involving moving ambassadors around (possibly something to do with the whole campaign finance reform shebang?) which is rather funny, though Ken Cochran the former ambassador to Bulgaria isn't just cheating on his wife, he's also a former member of a racist club, which is a bit much. He may as well be wearing a black hat. Charlie's smug expression is fantastic though.

Everyone comes together at the end of the episode to sit around and wait for the polling results, chatting nervously, which is a great scene. Almost too good, I started to feel like I was waiting for my A-Level results again. When the very good results come in, Bartlet's "What's next?" sounds more energetic and positive than he has for much of the series. There's a clear sense that everyone has been through a bit of a trough, but they're coming out the other side now – which is a nice, positive feeling for the penultimate episode of the season.

Bits and pieces

 - Isn't the phrase 'lies, damned lies and statistics'? Or is this like 'I could care less' (do NOT get me started on 'I could care less')?

 - Either Laurie gets more than the two tickets we always get for friends and family at graduations, or she and Sam are really close.

 - The Shipping News: See quotes below. Poor Kenny is still having to translate Joey and Josh's flirting, which may be why Josh has started trying to learn sign language. CJ is still cutting Danny out, but she does take a minute to explain to him why she's so upset.

 - The London Daily Mirror isn't a real paper, but The Mirror is, and so is The Daily Mail, so it works as a fake newspaper title (and The Mirror is definitely the sort of paparazzi-fuelled paper they're thinking of, though I doubt anyone in Britain cares two hoots about some random White House staffer seeing a call girl. If it were the President we might care).

 - Goldfish bowl watch: I didn't spot it, but some kind of package apparently.


Toby: Since when are you an expert on language?
CJ: In polling models?
Toby: Okay.
CJ: 1993. Since when are you an uptight pain in the ass?
Toby: Since long before that.

Bartlet: It's (the Federated States of Micronesia) actually 607 small islands in the South Pacific. Interestingly, while its total land mass is only 270 square miles, it occupies more than a million square miles of the Pacific Ocean. Population is 127,000 and the U.S. Embassy is located in the state of Pohnpei and not, as many people believe, on the island of Yap.
Toby: Why would a person have that information at their disposal?
Bartlet: Parties.

Joey: It's almost hard to believe you're not married.
Josh: Many have tried!
Immediately followed by:
Donna: It’s located 2500 miles southwest of Hawaii, where you’ve never taken me.
Josh: When was I supposed to take you to Hawaii?
Donna: Anytime. It’s something bosses do.

Joey: I know what polyglot means!
Josh: Then why did you ask me?
Joey (pointing at Kenny): He asked you!

Bartlet: Toby, are you in here sticking up for Sam?
Toby: I know it’s strange, sir. But I’m feeling a, a certain big brotherly connection right now. You know, obviously, I’d like that feeling to go away as soon as possible.

Keeps things moving and plenty of CJ and Joey being awesome. Three out of four states of Micronesia.

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


  1. Why did Leo ignore the fact that C.J. had a different opinion than the rest of the senior staff? It's disrespectful and felt sexist, and I spent the entire episode waiting for her to be proven right, which she was. And then Leo yelled at C.J. for not calling him about the Sam and Laurie thing, too.

    The Laurie subplot has been pointless and boring, but Bartlet's speech to Sam about congratulating Laurie on her degree and apologizing for the inconvenience was just lovely. So was the conversation about briefcases while they were waiting for the poll results.

    And the shell game with the ambassadors was great.

  2. I haven't seen this episode yet, but once I saw the title I knew this was the place to ask a question that has bothered me for years:

    Isn't the phrase 'lies, damned lies and statistics'?

    What the hell does that phrase mean? As I read it, it can be taken two different ways:

    1. There are lies. There are damned lies. And then there are statistics, which are the most damnable lies of all, as implied by the list moving from bad to worse. Or,

    2. There are lies. There are damned lies. Then there are statistics, which are honest, as implied by the contrast between damned lies and the term that comes after it.

    Does anyone know?

  3. Josie --

    The origin of the phrase is hotly debated, but is often attributed to Mark Twain who attributed it Benjamin Disraeli. The entire quote makes clear that he means the first of your interpretations:

    There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.

  4. Thanks Chris, I didn't know that was the origin! I've always assumed it was option 1, but didn't know where it came from.

  5. I've always seen this episode as an interesting example of group character development in two ways.

    The first is the whole idea around the polling. The President and his staff are all Type-A overachievers. They have spent their lives being the best, first at school, now in their careers. I don't think it's an accident that in this episode alone Josh mentions his SATs and Sam talks about getting their report card. It is imperative to this group that they are not only the best administration ever, but that they are loved by the people. The looks on their faces as they see the results are telling.

    The second is the Barry Haskell story. Talk about school yard shenanigans. Let's take the biggest nerd in town and let him come hang out with the cool kids for a while. If we do this, we can get him to play the game our way. It is telling that both the President and Leo know exactly what they are doing, but they use those tactics anyway.

    And, Juliette, I am with you on "I could care less." When I hear it and I am feeling particularly snarky, I point out what a ridiculous statement it is to whomever has just uttered it. We grammar nerds need to stick together!

    Lovely review, as always.


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