Toby Ziegler didn’t get it, but Jed Bartlet did

Here’s my third post on my “people (even politicians) are people” theme…

Two nights ago, as I was still thinking about my arguments on Cynthia Hardy’s radio show in opposition to the cynical approach to politics, I saw an episode of “The West Wing” that illustrated my point.

It was the 10th episode in the 5th season, “The Stormy Present.” Here’s a synopsis:

Bartlet clears his schedule to attend the funeral of a former President whose conservative views often clashed with his own while he monitors a potential firestorm in Saudi Arabia as freedom protesters threaten civil war and surround a worker’s compound that includes dozens of Americans. Elsewhere, Josh mediates a post-Civil War fracas between a representative from North Carolina who demands that her Connecticut counterpart return her state’s copy of the Bill of Rights — stolen long ago by a Union soldier — and C.J. is flustered after meeting a Pentagon scientist whose security innovations could threaten privacy. En route to the funeral, Bartlet shares sobering thoughts with two other men who appreciate the weight of the Oval Office — Speaker Walken and ex-President Newman.

Toby Ziegler is on the plane carrying the president, along with officials from the administration of the former president, to the funeral. Toby is tasked with writing a eulogy for Bartlet to deliver at the funeral. Toby is a basket case. He’s deeply appalled at being on the same plane with these people he regards as dangerous wing-nuts. He spend most of his time on his cell complaining to his colleagues back in the West Wing about what hell it is to be in the company of such people. He’s sincerely stressed out. He gets into Air Force One’s liquor supply and gets too wasted to be much good in writing the speech. (Looking back, I’m not entirely sure who DID write it in the end.)

But there are a couple of good scenes in which Bartlet reveals that, while his overly partisan staff may see the previous GOP administration as the embodiment of evil, he has learned to get over that. He has come to value his predecessors as the only human beings on the planet who understand what he is experiencing as president. He has come to see past the ideological differences and political competition between the parties. He, and especially the former presidents, are past that.

There is a good scene with a former Democratic president who’s along for the ride who talks about how furious he was at Bartlet, and was going to call him up and chew him out… until he was talked down by their conservative Republican predecessor.

I got really disgusted with Toby watching this, as he seemed to embody everything that was bad about hyperpartisanship today — he was so wrapped up in his hostility toward the opposition that he couldn’t function, which made him a metaphor for everything wrong with Washington today.

But the human connection and understanding between the current and former presidents held out hope of a way our system could work, if the parties, staffs and interest groups could just shut up for awhile, and let people listen to each other and work together, deliberately…

If you have Netflix, I recommend you go back and watch this episode.

13 thoughts on “Toby Ziegler didn’t get it, but Jed Bartlet did

  1. Brad Warthen Post author

    Since no one else wants to humor my “West Wing” obsession, I’ll go ahead and follow up on this myself.

    I’m happy to report that, in the episode I saw LAST night — “Slow News Day” — Toby grew up a lot.

    A brief synopsis:

    Toby convinces the President to secretly sanction his solo effort to make history by reforming Social Security, but his efforts to recruit a Republican Senator and a Democratic cohort are leaked — forcing the administration to back-pedal while Josh and Leo are left clueless and stewing. Meanwhile, an equally ignorant C.J. spars with a reporter who is ready to print all the backstage details. In addition, the female staffers complain to Josh about the new hire — a mysterious, seductively dressed woman assigned to Toby.

    Best part: Toby is trying to craft this historic deal to save Social Security, dealing with a senior Republican senator and a Democratic counterpart.

    Meanwhile, Josh and company, unaware of what Toby is up to, are crafting a cheap-shot media stunt to embarrass the very GOP senator Toby is delicately working with.

    The whole deal blows up. There’s a scene with the Democratic senator in which she tells Toby any deal will have to wait until there’s a Democratic majority. Toby, who’s operating on a plane above partisanship (one on which he’s come to understand that any real solution will have to be bipartisan) tells her with a pained expression, “We’ve been saying that for 20 years.” The Democratic senator is unmoved, and says she won’t help with any deal.

    In a scene a few moments later, a very junior staffer asks why a deal can’t be reached with a certain GOP House member she’s read about: “Well, what about Jim Carney? From the research it seems like he’s
    really committed to this.”

    Here’s what follows:

    Jim Carney was one of the gutsiest guys in the House. Loved on both
    sides of the aisle.


    He used to be a Republican House member. He’s not there anymore.

    What happened to him?

    Josh and I wrote a TV ad that destroyed his career. We figured if we
    won his seat, maybe a half dozen others, got more Democrats in Congress,
    we’d be able to get something done around here.

    Toby looks very sheepish as he confesses to that, because he knows how petty and shortsighted he sounds — even worse than the Democratic senator earlier who believes that a Democratic majority is an answer to everything, when it’s the answer to nothing…

  2. Bryan Caskey

    Toby’s an interesting character. I feel like he’s a version of the uncontrolled “id” in a liberal, in an idealistic way.

    He’s perhaps the most idealistic character of the show, and sometimes to his detriment.

      1. Bryan Caskey

        I confess that I’m not a psychiatrist, so I may not be expressing my point very well.

        I think it’s clear that Toby is probably the most “true believer” in the group, which is why he’s usually so gloomy. Whenever what he really wants to do is blocked by something he gets gloomy about it. He takes everything very seriously for the most part, and also takes things personally.

        By contrast, Josh Lyman almost sees politics as a sport. He relishes the conflict, and he loves winning, mostly for his own ego. (See “I drink from the keg of glory.”)

        This contrast is why the interaction between Lyman and Toby is usually fun for me. Josh is usually more focused on the horse-race aspect, whereas Toby isn’t.

        Toby’s first successful campaign is Bartlett’s Presidential win, which I think they did on purpose to show that Toby doesn’t always pick the right message for winning; rather, he wants to put out what he thinks is the right message. Toby’s usually advocating for what should be done in a normative sense, rather than what is politically expedient.

        Just my ramblings, though.

        1. Kathryn Braun Fenner

          Id is your base instincts, vs. superego which is your idealism.

          Toby is indeed a true believer, and yes, that can make one cynical. See also, Ross, Doug.

  3. Brad Warthen

    I think Toby’s my 3rd favorite character. There’s Leo, then Ainsley, then Toby.

    Despite the fact he passionately believes in a lot of stuff I oppose…

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