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Recap / The West Wing S 01 E 03 A Proportional Response

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As Josh is walking into the work area, Donna walks over to him and urgently tells him C.J. is looking for him. Though Donna doesn't exactly know why, she tells Josh enough that he figures out C.J. knows Sam slept with a call girl and told Josh and Toby but not her. Josh tells Donna he'll be in his office mapping out a strategy, but to tell C.J. or anyone else who asks that he went to the dentist. Naturally, when he opens the door to his office, C.J. is there waiting for him, and says, "Wow, are you stupid!" After berating Donna for not knowing C.J. was already there, and Donna leaves, Josh defends Sam, saying because Sam didn't know Laurie was a call girl when he slept with her, nor did he pay for her services. C.J. points out none of that will matter to the media. Josh tells C.J. she's overreacting, and C.J. assumes he means because she's a woman:


Josh: You know what, C.J., I really think I'm the best judge of what I mean, you paranoid Berkeley shiksa feminista! (Beat) Wow, that was *way* too far.
C.J.: No, no. (Beat) Well, I've got a staff meeting to go to and so do you, you elitist Harvard fascist missed-the-Dean's-list-two-semesters-in-a-row Yankee jackass!
Josh: Feel better getting that off your chest there, C.J.?
C.J.: I'm a whole new woman.

As they walk to the staff meeting, Toby joins them in the lobby, and mentions how the President was snapping at everybody at a dinner the previous night, including the First Lady. Josh reveals that C.J. knows about Sam and Laurie, which makes Toby even unhappier.

Leo and President Bartlet are walking towards the latter's office from outside, and President Bartlet is snapping at Leo that the State Department and Joint Chiefs aren't moving fast enough in a response to Syria shooting down the plane, while Leo maintains both State and the Joint Chiefs are doing everything they can. As they get inside Bartlet's office, Mrs. Landingham greets them, and the President tells her he can't find his glasses and asks her to help find them. President Bartlet then tells Leo it's been 72 hours since they shot "him" out of the sky, and he wants a response today. Leo warns Bartlet he shouldn't say "him" in front of anyone else, because it makes it sound like the only reason he's going after Syria in the first place is because they shot down Morris. President Bartlet denies this, saying he's upset because Americans were killed, and he barely knew Morris. He asks Mrs. Landingham once again to find his glasses. Leo seems about to say something, but thinks better of it and takes his leave.


In Leo's office, the others ask him about the President's mood, but he tells them not to worry. He then asks Sam if "it's" true, and Sam confirms that Congressman Bertram Coles, while speaking on a radio program about cuts to the military the President made in his district, said if the President went down to visit his district, he might not get out alive. Toby goes ballistic, especially since Coles is a member of their party, but the others tell him not to take the bait, to no avail. Leo then tells everybody an attack order is imminent, tells Toby and Sam to work on a speech and C.J. to not tell anyone until the last minute. As they leave, C.J. and Josh confer about who they need for interviews, and C.J. then tells Sam to stop by. Toby then confirms to Sam that C.J. knows about Laurie, but he's distracted when he sees a group of reporters in their path, along with Ginger. As Sam goes towards his office, Toby grabs a file from Ginger and tells her to stay there. The reporters ask Toby about what Coles said, and Toby replies, "The Secret Service investigates all threats made against the President. It's White House policy not to comment on those investigations." A reporter asks if this means Coles is under investigation, and Toby says again he can't comment before "remembering" he has to get back to the office. He walks to Ginger, gives her the file back, and silently thanks her before walking off.


C.J. is in her office when Sam stops by. Sam admits he knows why C.J. wants to see him, and C.J. again points out if she knows, it won't be long before the media does as well. She also wants to know why Sam went and saw her again. Sam gets upset and points out he's not out to solicit Laurie, but he wants to be friends with her and maybe get her to stop being a call girl. C.J. brings up the fact there's a perception issue, and Sam says he doesn't care about that. C.J. then tells him next time he's in a situation like this, he needs to talk to her first, and points out if Sam really thought this was above-board, he wouldn't have gone to Josh or Toby first. Sam again tells her he thinks she's letting the "character cops" win again because she's too scared. He realizes he's gone too far and, attempting to be conciliatory, asks about the order to strike, but C.J. sharply replies she doesn't know. Sam leaves.

President Bartlet and Leo join Admiral Percy "Fitz" Fitzwallace (John Amos) and the rest of the Joint Chiefs in the Situation Room. Admiral Fitzwallace says they have three scenarios planned, all of which meet the standards of a proportional response, and starts to describe the first one when the President interrupts, asking what the point of it all is, when the Syrians know what's coming and they've most likely cleared out, so there won't be significant damage. The others, especially Leo and Fitzwallace, don't know what to say to this, but Fitzwallace asks what the President thinks they should do instead. President Bartlet responds they should come up with a response that makes it seem like they're punishing Syria, not just doing the equivalent of docking their allowance. He storms out.

Charlie Young (Dule Hill) stands in the Roosevelt Room, nervous. Josh, carrying several files, and Donna walk towards the room, and Josh tells her what kind of food he wants. She introduces Josh to Charlie and leaves. Josh tells Charlie he's there to vet him - ask about his background - and introduces himself. Josh asks Charlie to sit, but Charlie is still too nervous. After changing his mind about what food he wants, Josh asks Charlie to sit again, to which he complies, and starts to describe the job, which he says will involve being sensitive and hard, with long hours. Charlie thinks there's some kind of mistake, because he applied for a bike messenger's job, but Josh says Charlie's been recommended for the job of personal aide to President Bartlet instead. Charlie is flummoxed by this. After yelling at Donna for a misspelled word in a memo, Josh asks Charlie why he's not in college, given how good his test scores are, and Charlie explains he's been taking care of his little sister ever since their mother, a police officer, was shot and killed in the line of duty five months before.

President Bartlet goes back to the Situation Room, and Admiral Fitzwallace unveils a scenario that, if they went forward with it, would do what the President asked, but would also cripple Syria's ability to receive any medical or food aid, as well as cause massive civilian casualties; not only that, but the rest of the world would see this as a gross overreaction by the United States for what he terms a "fifty buck crime", especially without the support of their allies. President Bartlet, deflated, asks for a cigarette. As an officer gives one to him and he lights it, President Bartlet asks about "Pericles One", the scenario Admiral Fitzwallace tried to tell him about earlier, and he confirms it'll strike high-rated targets and cause minimal civilian casualties. He also confirms the plan is ready to go when President Bartlet confirms it, and when he does confirm it, Admiral Fitzwallace gets on the phone and tells the person on the other end to go ahead. Fitzwallace then congratulates the President, but he responds, "'Fifty buck crime'? I honestly don't know what the hell we're doing here," and leaves.

Back in the Roosevelt Room, Josh is asking Charlie what he assures him are routine questions ("Have you ever tried to overthrow the government?"), and points out to a still-nervous Charlie that the job of personal aide is a much better job than the bike messenger job. Sam comes in, and Josh introduces the two of them. Sam gets upset on Charlie's behalf when Josh starts to asks Charlie about his personal life, and he becomes disruptive enough that Josh asks Sam to step outside the room with him. Once outside, Josh points out Sam knew when he took the job he was going to be held to a higher standard, but Sam says he's just sticking to his principles. Toby interrupts them, saying the retaliatory strike has occurred, and they need to go to Leo's office...

...where Leo tells the staff about Pericles One and the targets (two munitions dumps, a bridge and Syrian intelligence headquarters). He tells Toby and Sam to finish their speech, and tells C.J. to sit in on a briefing and repeats his order not to tell the press anything until they're ready. C.J. wants to speak to the President alone, and Leo assures her everything will be fine. Everyone leaves except Josh, who starts to bring up the President snapping at the First Lady until Leo tells him it's the wrong time. Josh then brings up Charlie, and mentions how much he likes him and how qualified he is for the job, but Josh is worried about the image of a black man waiting on the President and holding the door open for him. Leo points out *he* opens the door for the President, and if Charlie is the right man for the job, they should hire him regardless of the image. Admiral Fitzwallace joins them, and after he and Josh greet each other, Josh leaves. Fitzwallace tells Leo he needs to calm the President down, and tells him the President is really doing fine, he just doesn't know it. Leo thanks him, and brings up Charlie. Fitzwallace tells Leo as long as they pay Charlie a good wage and treat him with respect, it makes no difference what kind of job he has.

In the main office area, as the secretaries field phone calls, Toby and Sam finalize the speech, but Sam takes a minute to go apologize to C.J. about being so hard on her before. C.J. accepts. As Sam goes back to Toby, a group of reporters circle C.J. and ask what's going on, and C.J. feigns ignorance. As she leaves, she runs into Danny Concannon (Timothy Busfield), a senior White House correspondent, and she impatiently tells him he'll have to wait with everyone else for the briefing, but he's there to talk about Sam and Laurie. C.J. reluctantly asks him into her office.

At Donna's desk, Josh sits with her and marvels that he has absolutely nothing to do. To Josh's consternation, Mandy comes out of his office, saying how much it sucks. Josh joins Mandy in his office, and she tells him she came in a week early to get psyched. Josh points out how bad her timing is, and Mandy admits she had a feeling, but wanted to give Josh a present; a picture of the two of them at the Democratic Leadership conference, which they reminisce about, even as Josh points out she drew over his picture. The phone rings, and Josh finds out he now has something to do. Mandy says goodbye and leaves.

In C.J.'s office, Danny says he doesn't have enough for a story, but as a courtesy, he's letting C.J. know he's going to be asking around. C.J. then defends Sam using the same logic Sam used to defend himself, without telling Danny exactly what Sam's doing. This convinces Danny, but he warns C.J. other reporters will be more unscrupulous than he is. C.J. then gives him a heads-up on the Syrian bombing in exchange "for being a good guy".

Josh shows Charlie around the rest of the West Wing, and then brings him to the Oval Office to meet President Bartlet, which freaks him out even more.

In the Oval Office, the President is going over the speech with C.J., Sam and Toby, but is exasperated because they don't know the bomb damage assessment (BDA), and because no one has found his glasses yet. C.J. brings up an aircraft the President needs to be briefed on, and Bartlet snaps he knows about it, because he read about it the night before in his study. Hearing this, Charlie whispers to Josh, and Josh says he should tell the President. After C.J. lends the President her glasses and they don't work, Charlie finally speaks up, and reminds the President he was in his study the night before. As everyone looks on in stunned silence. Mrs. Landingham, who gets it, orders another secretary to go to the study and search for the glasses, and Josh tries to introduce Charlie to President Bartlet, but Bartlet testily replies he doesn't have time to meet any new people now. At that point, Leo, finally having had enough, asks the President for a minute and escorts him away.

In Leo's office, he tells President Bartlet he doesn't want the President to take his anger out on the American people, and tells him to send Mrs. Bartlet flowers when all of this is over. Bartlet brings up the fact that in ancient Rome, a Roman citizen could walk across the earth without fear of being attacked at all, and wants to know why Americans aren't entitled to that. Leo points out they're behaving as a superpower ought to, and when Bartlet brings up past U.S. failures, Leo retorts that ratcheting up the body count won't help, and if Bartlet wants to start using American military strength as the arm of God, he'd better start with killing Leo. A bit deflated, Bartlet brings up the fact Morris had a ten-day-old baby, and repeats that the "proportional response" is nothing. Leo yells that it isn't nothing, and there is no "good"; it's how a superpower behaves. Leo then adds quietly, "It's what our fathers taught us." As the tension between them is finally relieved, Leo brings up Bertram Coles, which President Bartlet laughs about, especially at Toby getting upset about it. President Bartlet then asks about Charlie.

In the Oval Office, C.J. asks Toby about the quote he gave to the reporters about Coles being investigated by the Secret Service. Toby says she should tell Coles there's a new sheriff in town.

Meanwhile, Josh apologizes to Charlie for the President, pointing out it's been a really bad day for him. Just then, President Bartlet comes over and asks to see Charlie privately. He tells Charlie he looked up some information on Charlie, including the fact his mother was killed with "cop killer" bullets, and asks Charlie if he wants to help Bartlet try and pass legislation banning the ammunition and the guns used to fire them. After a moment, Charlie smiles and says he does. The President thanks him. As the President prepares to go before the camera, and he and Leo banter about the tie he's wearing, Charlie tells Josh, "I've never felt like this before." Josh replies, "It doesn't go away." President Bartlet then begins his address to the nation.

This episode contains examples of:

  • Bait-and-Switch Comment:
    President Bartlet: Oh, man, Leo. When I think of all the work you put into getting me to run, and when I think of all the work you did to get me elected...I could pummel your ass with a baseball bat. (both the President and Leo start laughing)
    • Sam also pulls this on Charlie during his vetting interview.
    Sam: [Dead serious] You ever try to overthrow the government?
    Charlie: [Nervously] No, sir...
    Sam: [Exact same tone] What the hell's been stopping you?
  • Call-Back: To Sam and Laurie, Morris, and the history between Josh and Mandy.
  • Cigarette of Anxiety: The entire situation with the shot-down plane has Bartlet so stressed he asks the Joint Chiefs for a cigarette while sitting in the Situation Room. It's extra glaring since it's implied he's currently off tobacco, not carrying his own.
  • Department of Redundancy Department: A rare serious version of this trope:
    C.J.: What this is about, Sam, is you're a high profile, very visible, much noticed member...
    Sam: What I think it's about is you, once again, letting the character cops win in a forfeit, because you don't have the guts or the strength or the courage to say, "We know what's right from wrong, and this is none of your damn business."
    C.J.: Really?
    Sam: Yes.
    C.J.: Strength, guts and courage.
    Sam: Yes.
    C.J.: You just said three things that all mean the same thing.
    Donna: C.J.'s looking for you.
    Josh: (as he walks towards his office) Huh?
    Donna: C.J.'s looking for you.
    Josh: Donna?
    Donna: Yes?
    Josh: "Good morning, Josh" is a pretty good way to start the day.
    Donna: Good morning.
    Josh: What's up?
    Donna: C.J.'s looking for you.
  • Don't Call Me "Sir": Charlie keeps calling Josh "sir":
    Josh: Seriously, Charlie, we call the President "sir"; everyone else is, "Hey, when am I gonna get that thing I asked for."
  • Establishing Character Moment: In-universe, President Bartlet doesn't exactly make a good first impression on Charlie thanks to O.O.C. Is Serious Business and his tension over the Syria attack; he is notably curt and dismissive in a distinctly out-of-character fashion. His second meeting with Charlie, after Leo has talked him down, displays his more typical character.
  • Exact Words: Note that Toby never actually outright states that Congressman Coles is under investigation for threatening the President. He just grabs a random file from Ginger and wanders to the press corps flipping through it looking serious, which leads to this conversation:
    Reporter #1: Toby, did you guys hear Bertram Coles's comments on the radio?
    Toby: Yep.
    Reporter #2: And?
    Toby: Secret Service investigates all threats made against the President. It's White House policy not to comment on those investigations.
    Reporter #1: Are you telling us there's going to be a criminal investigation?
    [Meaningful pause]
    Toby: I'm sorry, I can't comment on that. Excuse me, I have to get back to my office.
  • Foreshadowing: This won't be the last we hear of Danny, and we'll hear more about Debbie DiLaguardia in Season 4.
  • Hand Wave: Josh and Leo worrying about hiring a black man to fill just a servant's role in the White House is Aaron Sorkin and NBC doing the same thing in regards to hiring a black actor to just play a servant role.
  • Heroic BSoD: President Bartlet is having one this entire episode.
  • Hypocritical Humour: Leo points out a certain fallacy in Bertram Coles's boast that President Bartlet, should he ever visit Coles's congressional district, "might not make it out alive".
    Leo: Apparently, the people of his district are so patriotic that if the President of the United States himself were to show up... they'd kill him. (He and Bartlet burst out laughing)
  • Ironic Echo: From the previous episode. In his private conversation with Dr. Tolliver, Bartlet admitted feeling uncomfortable around the Joint Chiefs because he felt they looked down on him due to his lack of military experience, and in particular the fact that he was uncomfortable with violence. In this episode, the Joint Chiefs are in fact utterly freaked out by the President's anger and desire to make people and things he doesn't like explode, and corner Leo to ask him to try and get him to cool down a bit.
  • It's Personal: Although the President denies it when Leo initially confronts him on the subject, it's pretty clear that a lot of his anger and aggression is being driven by the death of his personal physician in the attack on the American military plane.
  • O.O.C. Is Serious Business: Bartlet through the entire episode, due to his rage over the death of Captain Morris. As he mentioned in the pilot, he can't think straight when he's angry, and tends to make rash decisions. Finally, when he's about to order the retaliatory strike, he asks for a cigarette, the first time we've seen him smoke at all.
  • Political Correctness Gone Mad: Discussed; Josh and Leo are initially a little wary of hiring Charlie for the job of Personal Aide to the President because they're uncertain how the visual of a young black man waiting on an older white man by carrying his bags, general fetching-and-carrying, etc. will be received. Leo consults with Admiral Fitzwallace about it, who dismisses it as a "cosmetic battle" as long as they're going to pay Charlie a decent wage and treat him with respect. It's not entirely hard to see this as the show's writers offering a meta-commentary on their decision to cast the show's first African-American regular as the President's personal aide rather than one of the senior staff.
  • Sarcastic Devotee: The President demands a more severe course of action than the "Proportional Response" the Joint Chiefs propose, because he doesn't want to give the Syrians a relatively mild punishment that he figures they planned on getting to begin with. So Admiral Fitzwallace comes back with a proposal for a high-scale attack against a major airport, promising not only severe disruption to transportation, logistics, and access to medical supplies in the country, but also a likely civilian death toll in the thousands and the very high chance that they will alienate both America's allies and the American public. Bartlet takes his point and backs down.
  • Seinfeldian Conversation: Before President Bartlet comes into the Situation Room for the first time, Admiral Fitzwallace mentions how the coffee is different from what they usually have.
  • Self-Plagiarism: In The American President, when he makes the decision to attack Libya, President Andrew Shepherd says, "Someday someone's gonna have to explain to me the virtue of a proportional response." There's also an element of Ironic Echo, in that President Shepherd, though he recognized the necessity of the attack, didn't like having to do it in the first place, while here, President Bartlet thinks a proportional response is too little (at least until Leo talks him down).
  • Serious Business: Among the President's senior staff, the fact that the President is "snapping at the First Lady" is frequently raised as a serious issue. From what we see of their relationship when it's eventually introduced, this also counts as O.O.C. Is Serious Business.
  • Shout-Out:
    • When the press is asking why there's so much activity in the White House, C.J. lies and says it's because "Menudo is in the building".
    • Congressman Coles's comments that the President "might not make it out alive" if he visits a military base in the Congressman's district are based on a real-life statement made by then-Senator Jesse Helms in 1994 that President Bill Clinton "had better watch out" and "had better bring a bodyguard" if he were to visit bases in North Carolina. Helms was a Republican, not a Democrat like Clinton, but it still provoked a furor.
  • Tempting Fate:
    Josh: At least there's some comfort in knowing that whatever's gonna happen today has already happened.
    Josh: (looking at Donna) I don't understand it. Why can't you tell me that there is a person in my office?
  • This Is Gonna Suck: Inverted when Leo brings up Bertram Coles and his remarks to Bartlet.
    Leo: Here's one you'll like. Bertram Coles...
    Bartlet: [Chuckling]' Oh, I like anything that starts with "Bertram Coles", let's hear it.
  • Third Episode Introduction: This was Charlie's first appearance in the series.
  • Threat Backfire: Bertram Coles's posturing statement about the President "not getting out of here alive" if he visits a military base potentially threatened by military cuts not only leads to Toby Ziegler insinuating to the press that the Secret Service is investigating him for threatening the life of the President, but when Bartlet hears it he bursts out laughing.
  • Write What You Know: In universe. As Josh is sitting around with nothing to do:
    Josh: I'm like a writer on a movie set.
    Donna: Have you ever been on a movie set?
    Josh: No, but I hear stories.

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