[Writer: Aaron Sorkin | Director: Alan Taylor | Aired: 02/23/2000]
It should come as no surprise to the averageWest Wing viewer that Aaron Sorkin is a great fan of classic literature. Many times will Bartlet take a moment from his rigorous occupation of running the country to share a brief anecdote with his impressionable young staffers, and Sam, Josh, and CJ all have also had their quotable quoting moments. Some of the show’s most evocative lines are in fact lifted directly from passages of classical prose. I don’t mind this, however – as TS Eliot put it, “Bad poets borrow… Good poets steal.”
(See what I did there?)
“20 Hours in LA” features a peculiar example of Sorkin’s love of centuries-old verse. Twice during the episode, Donna tries to convince Josh to try and spark a romantic relationship with Joey Lucas. Both times, she uses the opening line of Robert Herrick’s “To the Virgins…”: “Gather ye rosebuds.”
True, Donna delivers the line in her typical flighty and off-handed Season One manner. But it strikes me as a bit odd. Does every White House employee have this weird fixation with quoting 17th-century poetry? Or is this just a case of Sorkin’s pen getting the better of his characters?
There, is, however, a deeper context to this reference, emphasized by the fact that it is repeated. Herrick’s poem carries a “Carpe Diem” message:
“Gather ye rosebuds while ye may;
Old Time is still a-flying;
And this same flower that smiles today
Tomorrow will be dying.”
In a way, this poem captures the essence of “20 Hours in LA”, at least on a thematic level. Over the last few episodes, Bartlet has slowly been shifting away from what he is expected to be doing, and more of what he feels he should be doing. This is spurred on by the knowledge that he has the golden opportunity to leave an impression on the country – he only needs the incentive to make it happen. There are changes on the horizon, and though he still has doubts about them, he is slowly starting to press forward.
From the earliest scenes of the episode, we get a quick reminder of how much Bartlet really loves his work: “You two want to see the best part about having my job?” he asks Josh and Toby, before making a call to the Air Force One pilot to get the plane up and flying. This is an example of the sort of wise and cheerful cleverness we’ve come to expect from Bartlet, who is never afraid to show his more personal side around his staffers. The trick now is for him to siphon that image and attitude into a much broader scope while also projecting his own views and opinions onto the American populace. A daunting task? Perhaps, but it can be made significantly easier when broken down into more specific steps.
First, there’s the matter of personal familial conflicts. Bartlet, like any other father, wants to be on the lookout for Zoey, but he acknowledges that the needs of the country overshadow the needs of his daughter. When introduced to Zoey’s new Secret Service bodyguard, Gina, Bartlet sets her priorities straight: There will be no discussion over concerns of Zoey’s personal life – the only thing he wants reported to him are potential threats. (Bartlet’s fatherly apprehensions and attempts like this to distance himself from them give the events of “Twenty Five” just a little more sting.)
Then, there’s the issue of weighing proposed conflicts and deciding on whether or not they deserve great focus. Bartlet squirms uncomfortably throughout the flag-burning amendment conference, and cuts it short by asking, point-blank, “Is there an epidemic of flag-burning going on that I’m not aware of?” His attitude receives angry jeers from a large crowd of Californians, but Bartlet simply accepts their disapproval as a necessary part of his job.
Finally, there’s the problem which has plagued the Bartlet administration more than any other since Day One: Self-image. We see a little bit of Bartlet’s changed approach toward self-image with his response to the aforementioned flag-burning conference, but “20 Hours in LA” finds an even cleverer way to showcase the issue. Ted Marcus has invited the Administration to attend a fundraiser, and is willing to give the White House a sizable donation, but only on the condition that the President publicly announces that he plans to veto a bill Marcus is against.
Bartlet, however, is tired of being pushed around. In a meeting with Ted, he angrily states that announcing his position on the issue so early in the game could prove hazardous, and backs up his reasoning: “I live in the world of professional politics!” Bartlet recognizes that, as President, he has greater influence on the country than anyone else, and in this scene, he acknowledges both the strengths and potential dangers that come with his position.
There are several factors in this episode which lead Bartlet to decide on a more forceful attitude. Among the most notable is his conversation with Al Kiefer, a political analyst who, in trying to goad Bartlet into using his plan to increase the administration’s popularity, only opens the President’s eyes to why such tactics don’t work. By not boldly asserting his own political standings, Bartlet runs the risk of becoming a mere pawn of the populace, simply rubber-stamping the majority opinion without ever leaving an impression of his own.
Joey Lucas is the one who tells the White House staffers that their anxieties regarding the flag-burning amendment are unfounded – “The only place that this war is being fought is in Washington.” Interestingly, in an episode actually titled “The War At Home”, Joey will refer to a certain French radical whose mindset was very similar to the one Bartlet is now just realizing he needs to avoid: “There go my people. I must find out where they’re going so I can lead them.”
But perhaps the most crucial factor of the episode is John Hoynes, a character who’s already proved himself to be one of the most intriguing supporting players in the series. As I mentioned in my review of “Enemies”, Hoynes is not the type of man who will openly sabotage the Bartlet administration, but he won’t hurry to the rescue if something goes wrong. And “20 Hours in LA” uses this facet of his character to marvelous effect.
Here, Hoynes is called upon to perform the one job a Vice President can do: Act as “the whip” for a tie-vote Congressional bill. As we slowly come to learn throughout this and future seasons, characters on this show are at their most insightful and interesting when they’re shown in actual positions of power. And for the first time in the series, we see Hoynes in just such a position.
When Hoynes initially refuses to comply with the President’s wishes and help swing the vote on an ethanol bill, we get a taste of Hoynes’ penchant for saving his own skin – fearing a brand of hypocrisy from the Republican Party, he doesn’t want to affect his own chances for Presidency after Bartlet’s term is up. Though Leo tries to convince him that this is a chance for him to gain a new level of trust with the White House staffers, it’s clear that Hoynes isn’t looking to be vindicated – he, like any other Presidential hopeful, simply wants to keep his own image polished.
As Bartlet hears Hoynes’ reasoning, he at first begins to regret his choice for VP. But the more he thinks about it – and the more Leo and Sam echo the sentiment – the more he starts to realize that he and Hoynes are in fact on the same page. Both of them share an opinion on the bill and ensuing vote – but Hoynes is the only one willing to vocalize it.
This is why “20 Hours in LA” ultimately succeeds. Though the episode is a little slow in spots, and not very emotionally arresting, it examines an important theme from all sides, exploring wonderful new character information in the best West Wing tradition. We watch fascinated as Bartlet gathers his rosebuds and begins to take a stand on his own. His thought process is not fully independent yet, but the journey is a genuine treat to watch. It shows us that Bartlet is an open-minded individual when it comes to politics, willing to accept advice that influences his goals and ideals. Even if said advice, we note satisfactorily as the episode draws to a close, comes from a man like John Hoynes.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Josh’s inability to open his hotel room door until Donna helps him. (A joke the show would recycle years later in “King Corn”.)
+ CJ getting offended when Toby doesn’t compliment her dress.
+ Donna getting all flustered around David Hasselhoff.
+ CJ’s reaction to the job offer of “developing” movies.
+ Donna clucking like a chicken.
+ CJ trying to avoid the celebrities at the fundraiser.
+ “Phone message! Phone message!”
– For all the little highlights CJ and Donna have in this episode, their chat on the plane about what sunscreen to wear in California, while their male coworkers discuss pressing political issues, is just more fuel for those who label Aaron Sorkin a sexist.
* Gina assures Bartlet, “I know what I’m looking for in a crowd.” This, coupled with the suspicious-looking man she spots staring at Zoey later in the episode point toward her crucial role in the shocking cliffhanger which ends “What Kind of Day Has It Been”.
* Bartlet struggles with insomnia throughout the episode, trying to come to grips with his personal ideals. He will again display sleeping troubles – to a more serious degree – in “Night Five”.
* Leo tells Hoynes: “I’m going to be the one standing here when you make history.” And indeed, he is standing right there when Hoynes decides to resign from the Vice Presidency in “Life on Mars”.