Follow TV Tropes


Recap / The West Wing S 02 E 08 Shibboleth

Go To

Directed by Laura Innes

Written by Aaron Sorkin & Patrick Caddell

Sunday night before Thanksgiving, in San Diego Harbor, the Coast Guard commander is on the phone as police cars and ambulances pull up. Joseph Russo, an INS agent, shows up, and greets the commander, who tells him they're holding a container ship with about 100 people, and they need a Mandarin translator. Russo says he's got people, but it's not up to him whether they'll be an expedited removal.

Sam and Toby are in an office, working on the Thanksgiving proclamation, though Sam is trying to have a little fun with it as well. C.J. comes in.

C.J.: Have either of you heard of...uh, I don’t know, something, the...Jamestown Mayflower Daughters of the American Revolution Preservation Society?
Toby: The Jamestown Mayflower Daughters?
C.J.: I may have gotten the name wrong. They’re inviting the White House to participate in some kind of...I don’t know, Thanksgiving Revolutionary War re-enactment.

After Toby testily corrects her history (Jamestown was 16th century, the Mayflower landed at Plymouth in the 17th century, and the Daughters of the American Revolution descended from those who fought in the 18th century), C.J. snaps that she's in charge of the Thanksgiving festivities even though she wasn't the year before (she was sick in bed). Also, she accuses the rest of the staff of checking out when a holiday comes up. Toby counters he and Sam are busy writing the Proclamation, and no one is checking out. Just then, Josh comes in, marveling at how he flipped a coin and got tails 16 times in a row. C.J. gives them all a look and leaves. Donna comes to the doorway and asks them all to follow her. When Josh, Sam and Toby come out, they see Donna with Morton Horn, who's got with him two caged turkeys that he's dropping off. Donna tells them she has no instructions, and Morton asks where he should put them. After a brief hesitation, all three suggest Morton put the turkeys in C.J.'s office, and Toby adds Morton can even let the turkeys out of their cages. When Donna and Morton leave, Josh mutters, "Show *her* who's slacking off", and he and the others agree to order pizza. As Josh is walking back to his office, Bonnie tells him he's wanted on a conference call with the Coast Guard commander and the Situation Room about a boat from China.

Monday morning, in Leo's office, Josh explains the situation; 96 Chinese stowed away on a ship to San Diego, 13 of them died along the way, and INS has them in a temporary facility. Leo tells him to brief C.J. They ask each other about Thanksgiving plans (Leo's with the First Family, while Josh, Sam and Toby are going to watch football), and Josh asks Leo not to tell President Bartlet what they're doing because he doesn't want to get invited to hear Bartlet give them the history of the yam in Latin. An exasperated Leo says the President won't care what Josh and the others are doing, and tells him again to brief C.J. Josh leaves and finds C.J. in the hallway and tells her; she says it's not enough to brief with, and he says he'll have more in a few minutes. He also tells C.J. Toby wants to add Josephine McGarry, Leo's sister, to the list of recess appointments, because Toby's looking for a fight on school prayer, which C.J. predicts he'll get. C.J. says she's going to her office to deal with the hassle of Thanksgiving festivities. She walks into her office and starts looking at papers before she realizes there are two turkeys walking around on her desk and couch. Donna comes rushing in and explains the situation; every year, the President pardons a turkey, and C.J. has to pick which one is photogenic enough to get pardoned. C.J. is unhappy, and tells Donna she wants to be alone.

Charlie is walking towards the Oval Office, carrying a bag, when Sam finds him and asks him to tell the President there may be a new wrinkle in the situation with the Chinese refugees. Charlie, as it happens, has been shopping for a new carving knife for Bartlet. Sam and Mrs. Landingham both mention how seriously Bartlet takes his carving knives, and Charlie says he's come to realize that. He walks into the Oval Office and presents the knife to President Bartlet; it's an American-made chef's knife. Bartlet says he likes it at first, but when Charlie starts to leave, says the balance is wrong, and Charlie should try for a German knife instead. Before Charlie leaves, he tells President Bartlet what Sam told him. Toby walks in, and President Bartlet asks him about Josephine McGarry. Toby doesn't see the problem, but President Bartlet points out recess appointments are supposed to be non-controversial, and the Senate's going to have a big problem with her. Toby doesn't care, and thinks this is the best way to start a debate on school prayer. Bartlet adds he's not really fond of her as a person, but Toby says she's the best for the position. Leo comes in with the final list of recess appointments, but gets upset when he finds out his sister is now one of them. President Bartlet and Toby point out she's more than qualified for the position (Assistant Secretary for Primary and Secondary Education), but Leo points out Toby is gearing up for a fight on school prayer they're not ready for. Toby counters they should be, and says he'll take the meetings, which Leo thinks will prove just how bad an idea it is. Just then, Josh and Sam enter with their news; the Chinese refugees are claiming they're Christian evangelicals fleeing persecution and seeking asylum.

On Tuesday morning, in the press briefing room, C.J. explains the INS has conducted a "credible fear" interview, which doesn't grant asylum, but simply determines if the refugees will be harmed if they return. She also says, "On the following days, we will be meeting with Reverend Al Caldwell, members of Beijing's Embassy and INS agents. The president has asked Josh Lyman and Sam Seaborn to run these meetings, so it’s entirely possible that by week’s end we’ll have alienated Christians, China and our own government.", which the reporters laugh at. She then mentions she'll wait a day to release the list of recess appointments (though she imagines it'll be leaked later that day, which also makes the reporters laugh), and brings up the Thanksgiving festivities. Wednesday is when President Bartlet pardons the turkey, and Thursday morning will be when he's joined by members of the Boys and Girls Clubs of America (as well as Big Brothers and Big Sisters of America) as he reads his Thanksgiving Proclamation. Mark, one of the reporters, asks if C.J. will be leading them in song; C.J. plays along and says she will of course, and ends the briefing. She then finds Carol and resignedly tells her she needs to learn some songs.

As Josh and Sam walk to the Roosevelt Room, Josh tells Sam not to bring "it" up, despite the fact Sam clearly wants to. Reverend Caldwell, Mary Marsh, and a man named John La Salle are waiting for them. Josh greets everybody, but Mary is more interested in getting to the point; the President will face embarrassment unless he grants asylum to the Chinese refugees. Josh points out the INS judge is the one who grants asylum requests, but Mary says the judge will do what the President tells him to. Sam asks if they have evidence the refugees were persecuted for being Christians, and all three of them bring up examples (they were arrested and beaten for spreading the gospel). Reverend Caldwell points out Amnesty International and the State Department agree the Chinese persecutes Christians. However, when Mary goes on at how Christians around the world won't stand for religious freedom being threatened, Sam has had enough, and brings up what Josh told him not to talk about; a play called "Apostles" that portrayed Jesus as gay received a bomb threat, and no one said anything. Reverend Caldwell asks Josh if the two of them can step outside.

Once outside, Josh apologizes for Sam, but Reverend Caldwell says Sam had a point and Mary was being overwrought. He then asks Josh to tell the President his church is willing to pay the bond for the refugees, and he himself will also pay whatever is necessary. Josh thanks Reverend Caldwell and says he'll pass along the message. Toby walks by and he and Reverend Caldwell greet each other.

Toby goes to the Mural Room, where several Republican congressional aides are waiting, and they're pissed at him. Toby points out how qualified Josephine McGarry is for the position she's being appointed to, and wants to know what the problem is. One of the aides claims she's anti-religion, which Toby disputes by saying she teaches Sunday school. Another aide says she's against school prayer, even though he thinks most of America is for it; Toby points out the courts aren't, and that laws don't work like that. He's also upset because he thinks it would never come to a vote if it wasn't a recess appointment, because she's too qualified, and he's in the right. One of the aides says, "Not this time," and hands him a photograph.

Toby shows the photograph (from a newspaper clipping) to Leo, who's pissed off, in Leo's office.

Toby: It's not good, but it's not, you know...
Leo: These are high school students. Two of them are on their knees praying while being handcuffed, with my sister standing next to the cop whose hand is on his nightstick...One of the students is wearing his marching band uniform, one of the students is black...
Toby: Listen...
Leo: And you say it's "not good".
Toby: Yeah, look...

Toby points out they knew about the incident, but Leo points out they didn't know there were photographs. Toby thinks he can still save this, but Leo says out its over, and yells for Margaret to get his sister on the phone. He then tells Toby again the position didn't need to be filled that desperately, nor were they ready for a discussion on school prayer.

On Wednesday morning, C.J. asks Donna if she can come with her for a minute. Josh walks by, and along with reminding Donna about his meeting with INS agents, is amused to hear C.J. is leading people in song on Thanksgiving. Once he leaves, C.J. confesses she needs help with songs; Donna says there's a usual song ("We Gather Together"), and is amazed C.J. doesn't know it. She offers to teach C.J. the song, but C.J. says she has work to do. She walks to her office and gets ready to choose one of the turkeys. She tries to pick one of them up, but is unable to approach him, and eventually needs Donna's help.

Josh and Sam are in Josh's office, meeting with INS agents. The agents tell Josh and Sam the journey has been paid by people who want to use these refugees to work in sweatshops. Josh brings up the fact Reverend Caldwell is willing to foot the bill, and one of the agents points out refugees can be coached to say they're fleeing religious persecution. They say, just as Josh predicted, that the law is the law, and the President needs to follow it. Once they leave, Sam points out given the conditions they traveled under, they couldn't have faked it.

In the Oval Office, C.J. comes by and tells President Bartlet it's time for him to pardon the turkey. Charlie comes in, as ordered, with a German knife, but Bartlet doesn't like the handle. As Charlie leaves, Josh and Sam come in and brief President Bartlet on what the Chinese and INS officials have told them (the Chinese say Christians aren't persecuted, so they don't qualify for refugee status), including the possibility the refugees are, as Josh puts it, "feigning faith". Bartlet asks if either of them know what a "shibboleth" is; they don't. Bartlet explains it was a password used to distinguish true Israelites from impostors, and says he's going to be meeting with one of the refugees that night.

In Leo's office, Margaret tells Leo Josephine is there. Josephine (Deborah Hedwall) comes in, and is very excited about the appointment, even if it means there will be a fight. Leo, however, tells her he wants her to withdraw her name from consideration; the official reason she can give is she feels she can do more as a school superintendent in Atlanta, but the real reason is the picture. Josephine asks why he wouldn't consider standing by her, and Leo recounts how, when he was on a campaign swing through the south, he met a photographer named Odabee Jones, whom Josephine would often call whenever she felt there was something worth shooting; of course, he was the one who took the picture of the band students being handcuffed, meaning that she deliberately set it up. He goes on to say:

Those kids are commendable in this day and age — those kids are phenomenal. Now we have laws and they are difficult and they have to be enforced, and it's right that they're enforced... but we do not strut — ever!

After a long pause, Josephine agrees to sign whatever Leo needs her to sign, and leaves as Toby enters. Toby concedes Josephine was the wrong face to put on the argument about school prayer, but says the argument should be front and center, not because of the First Amendment or church and state, but because:

Leo asks, "What did they do to you?" Toby says nothing as Ginger enters, looking for Toby. Just as Toby leaves, Leo concedes he's right. Toby then stops and asks what Leo is doing for Thanksgiving, and repeats Josh's wish not to let the President know; Leo, once again, says the President couldn't care less.

That night, in the Oval Office, Mrs. Landingham lets President Bartlet know Jhin-Wei (Henry O), the refugee, is there. As she goes to get him, Leo asks if they need an interpreter, but President Bartlet says Jhin-Wei speaks English already. Jhin-Wei enters, and Leo asks for the aides who accompanied him to wait outside. President Bartlet greets Jhin-Wei, offers him sandwiches that are available, and starts asking him questions. Jhin-Wei says he started attending church with his wife, he was eventually baptized, his congregation shares Bibles because they don't have enough, but they sing hymns, recite the Lord's Prayer, and are charitable. President Bartlet then asks who the head of their church is; Jhin-Wei says the head of his parish is an 84 year old man who's been beaten several times, but that the head of the church is Jesus Christ. President Bartlet then asks him to name the 12 disciples; Jhin-Wei does so, but points out President Bartlet is trying to find evidence of faith, not a recitation of facts, and says, "Faith is the true shibboleth." President Bartlet looks impressed, and tells Jhin-Wei he said “the magic word, in more ways than one”. They shake hands, and Jhin-Wei leaves. Leo reminds the President they can't afford to alienate China, what with the planes they're trying to sell, the settlement they want China to negotiate with Tibet, and copyright law enforcement. President Bartlet thinks for a minute, and says, "We don't have to grant asylum." Leo gets what he means, and says what he's proposing has been done before. Leo also adds the refugees are being guarded by the INS and the California National Guard (but not the Coast Guard), and asks rhetorically, "How secure is the INS detention facility?" President Bartlet tells Mrs. Landingham he wants to speak to the governor of California.

Thursday morning, C.J. tells Carol to move the press to the Rose Garden, and they'll be starting in five minutes. Toby comes by and teases her about the song, which C.J. says she knows, even if she doesn't know what it means. Toby then invites her to join him, Josh and Sam. C.J.'s a little ticked he waited so long, but agrees to come. She goes to her office, where Donna and Morton are waiting for her. Donna tells C.J. Morton is there to take back the other turkey (the pardoned one goes to a petting zoo in Delaware). C.J. doesn't think it's fair the one who didn't get pardoned gets killed, and offers to pay for it. Morton tells her it's already been sold to someone else, and says it's his job to bring it back. C.J. asks for the two of them to follow her.

Mrs. Landingham is sitting at her desk when President Bartlet asks to see a copy of the Thanksgiving Proclamation. Mrs. Landingham wants to know why he can't use the intercom to call her, like everyone else does. Charlie comes into the Oval Office with a Japanese knife, but Bartlet isn't wild about it. Charlie starts to lose his patience, and says all he wants is a knife to cut meat, so there's no need to be picky. Bartlet explains the knife is something to pass along, and he wanted a new knife because he's giving his away. Charlie asks whom he's giving it away to:

Bartlet: Funny you should ask. (he opens his drawer and pulls out an antique knife case) Charlie, my father gave this to me, and his father gave it to him, and now I’m giving it to you.
Charlie: (looks at the box) It says "P.R." I thought I knew them all, but I don't recognize the manufacturer.
Bartlet: Yeah. This was made for my family by a Boston silversmith named Paul Revere. (Charlie looks up, stunned) I'm proud of you, Charlie.

Charlie sincerely thanks Bartlet, reminds him he's due in the Rose Garden in five minutes, and leaves. C.J. has come in during this time, and she explains the situation with the other turkey and asks the President to pardon it. President Bartlet points out he can't, but C.J. says she bets Morton doesn't know that. Bartlet is exasperated to hear that answer, but agrees to accompany C.J. Morton, Donna, and the turkeys are in the waiting area, and President Bartlet goes through the motions of pardoning the other turkey before telling Morton he can't legally do so; what he will do is draft the other turkey into military service, and have someone draft a check with Bartlet's name on it so whoever was supposed to buy the other turkey can buy another one. Morton agrees, and he, Donna and leave. Josh and Sam come in, and Sam gives President Bartlet the Thanksgiving Proclamation. C.J. reminds Bartlet of the Rose Garden, and Bartlet asks for two minutes. She leaves, and President Bartlet pretends to be surprised about the news; the Chinese refugees were able to break out of the detention center and escape. Bartlet then reads the proclamation, and when he's finished, Sam leaves and says he'll meet them in the Rose Garden. Josh figures out President Bartlet told the National Guard to stand down, and Bartlet adds he sent in the Red Cross, and no one did anything wrong. As the children in the Rose Garden start to sing "We Gather Together" in the background, Bartlet tells Josh:

We can be the world’s policeman. We can be the world’s bank, the world’s factory, the world’s farm. What does it mean if we’re not also... They've made it to the New World, Josh. You know what I get to do now? I get to proclaim a National Day of Thanksgiving. This is a great job.

President Bartlet heads out to the Rose Garden, and after a moment, Josh follows him.

This episode contains examples of:

  • …And That Little Girl Was Me: It is heavily implied (though never outright confirmed) that Toby is drawing on some personal experiences when he describes a lonely non-Christian fourth grader getting bullied by his classmates for not joining in on the school prayers as a reason for making the separation of church and state a priority in education policy.
  • Armor-Piercing Response: Toby is confidently, even arrogantly, holding forth with the congressional staffers he's meeting with about Josephine McGarry and effectively shouting down their arguments in typical imperious fashion... until he gets a bit cocky without being prepared for one of them to have not only a comeback, but damaging photographic evidence :
    Toby: Hold up all the appointments you want. Shut down the government because a teacher did as she was told. You'll have given us a second term and we won't even have to leave the building. Not because I'm right and you're wrong — though I am, and you are — but because I am better at this than you.
    Staffer: [calmly] Not this time.
    Toby: ... I'm sorry?
    Staffer: You're not better this time. [reaches into his briefcase and produces a manila envelope] This is a picture of her.
    Toby: [Sounding a little uncertain for the first time] Doing what?
    Staffer: Enforcing the law.
  • Artistic License – History: C.J., as demonstrated above.
    Toby: C.J., let's not torture American history completely to death!
    • Also, Toby; in reality, Jamestown was founded in the 17th century as well.
  • As the Good Book Says...: President Bartlet quotes Judges 12:6 ("Then said now unto him, say now “shibboleth" and he said "sibboleth", for he could not frame to pronounce it right") to explain what "shibboleth" means, and Jhin-Wei also quotes Romans 3:28 ("man is justified by faith alone").
  • Brick Joke: Everyone of the senior staff who asks Leo about his Thanksgiving plans asks him not to tell President Bartlet what they're doing, as they feel he'd just insist they join his celebrations. Josh in particular states that it's a break for them and no one wants to be subjected to "a lecture about the Latin for 'yam'." Every time, Leo retorts that the President couldn't care less what they're doing, but at the end when he has a meeting with Sam and Josh Bartlet rather pointedly informs Josh that "the Latin for 'yam' is 'dioscorea'." Apparently the subject came up at some point.
  • The Bus Came Back: Al Caldwell and Mary Marsh return, having last been seen in the pilot episode.
  • Comically Missing the Point:
    President Bartlet: Morton, I can’t pardon a turkey. If you think I can pardon a turkey, then you have got to go back to your school and insist that you be better prepared to go out in the world.
    Donna: You can't pardon a turkey?
  • David Versus Goliath: Downplayed, but when allowing them to go free Bartlet essentially agrees to pretend that this occurred between the impoverished, exhausted and starving Chinese refugees recently arrived in America and the well-armed, well-fed and well-rested immigration enforcement officers and National Guard soldiers staffing the detention center they were located at. Of course, no one seriously believes this happened, but as part of the Take a Third Option it allows everyone to get what they want (or something approximating it) while saving face; the immigrants get to make a new life in America, the Americans get to allow them to do so without publicly alienating China or breaking their laws, and the Chinese get to make hay out of how weak and inept American officials are.
  • Expy: The play "Apostles" that Sam mentions is likely based on the Terrence McNally play Corpus Christi, which also portrayed Christ (and his apostles) as gay, and which received similar death threats.
  • A Father to His Men: In this episode, President Bartlett gives Charlie his family's set of carving knives made by Paul Revere after saying that carving knives are a thing you pass down the family. Specifically, his example is from father to son.
  • Failed a Spot Check: One of the turkeys has to give off a noise for C.J. to discover that she's got turkeys loose in her office.
  • Gratuitous Latin: "By the way, the Latin word for yam is dioscorea."
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: Once again, Toby lets his self-righteousness and eagerness to pick a fight come back to bite him. This time, he's so fixated on starting a debate over school prayer by nominating Leo's sister to a position in the Department of Education that he doesn't fully vet her, leading to a humiliating about-face when it turns out her political opponents are in possession of embarrassing and politically damaging photographs.
  • Hopeless with Tech: A 20th-century technology example:
    President Bartlet: Mrs. Landingham, can I look at a copy of the Thanksgiving proclamation?
    Mrs. Landingham: Sir, why don't you use the intercom?
    President Bartlet: Cause-
    Mrs. Landingham: Cause you don't know how to use the intercom.
    President Bartlet: I was standing at the door.
  • Hypocritical Humor: C.J accuses the other senior staff of "checking out" every time a major public holiday comes up. Toby and Sam indignantly deny this... only for Josh to amble up to them claiming to have flipped a coin and got tails sixteen times in a row. Then, out of vengeance, they get the Thanksgiving turkeys to be pardoned stashed in C.J's office, with Josh muttering that they'll "show her who's slacking off." — and immediately after agree to get some pizzas.
  • It's All About Me: Leo accuses Toby — not entirely unreasonably — of this trope being the real motivator of his zeal to have Josephine McGarry forced through with the recess appointments, as it's more about his own personal experiences rather than what's best for the issue or the administration.
    Leo: I begged you to go slow with this nomination.
    Toby: [Mumbling and sullen] The post needed to be—
    Leo: The post did not desperately need to be filled. Neither the economy nor national security nor infrastructure will collapse without an Assistant Secretary of Primary and Secondary Education.
    Toby: [Still too stubborn to back down] It brings the problem front and center—
    Leo: Great. And what prize do we get for that?
    Toby: Leo, I—
    Leo: What prize do we get for bringing it front and center?
    [Margaret interrupts to announce that Josephine is on the phone]
    Toby: I'll be in my office. [picks up the newspaper clipping and begins to slink out, but before he can get to the door:]
    Leo: It brings your problem front and center. [Toby freezes] Leave the newspaper.
  • Like a Son to Me: This is the episode that makes it explicit this is how Bartlet feels towards Charlie ("I'm proud of you, Charlie").
  • Obfuscating Stupidity: Toby in his meeting with Republican aides:
    Aide: You understand that the Senate Republicans...
    Toby: No, I don’t. Can you explain it to me slowly using small words and visual aids?
  • Rage Breaking Point: Downplayed, as it's more like the "Mild Frustration Breaking Point Nevertheless Expressed With Appropriate Due Respect When The Person Frustrating You Is The Leader Of The Free World". Nevertheless, after every knife Charlie's found has been rejected, the President confessing that he has tried and was "not wild" about the expensive Japanese carving knife he has managed to find is what finally prompts Charlie to break down and point out that since the purpose of the knife is to carve meat, he's struggling to see why Bartlet is so picky about them.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Al Caldwell pulls Josh aside and offers to personally pay the bond for each of the Chinese immigrants (though in the latter case that makes the problem worse for the White House, since it leaves them open to attacks from the Christian community for not ensuring their freedom themselves and making private citizens do it).
  • Self-Plagiarism: Right before his meeting with Jhin-Wei, President Bartlet tells Leo Jhin-Wei is a chemistry professor, and adds that there was a time when he wanted to be a chemistry professor. When Leo asks what happened, Bartlet admits, "I never actually studied chemistry." Sorkin used a similar gag on Sports Night.
  • Shout-Out: When talking about Josephine McGarry, President Bartlet tells Toby, "I've met the women, and I think she's All About Eve".
  • Take a Third Option:
    • What President Bartlet ultimately decides to do with the refugees. As he tells Josh, he couldn't let the refugees go, and he wanted China to save face, so having them escape so it looked like they overpowered the guard was the best bet.
    • Also played for laughs with regards to the turkey subplot. President Bartlet is adamant that his turkey-pardoning powers do not exist beyond the ceremonial, but C.J has grown to love both turkeys and can't bear for one of them to be eaten. As a result, he decides to "draft [the second turkey] into federal service" and buys the original owners a replacement.
  • Take That!:
    C.J.: They sent me two turkeys. The most photo-friendly of the two gets a Presidential pardon and a full life at a children’s zoo. The runner-up gets eaten.
    President Bartlet: If the Oscars were like that, I'd watch.
  • Thanksgiving Episode: The Bartlet's administration's second Thanksgiving in office. CJ, who missed the first due to illness, is constantly bewildered by the PR events she has to deal with such as pardoning turkeys. Bartlet gifts Charlie an heirloom carving knife that's been in his family for generations.
  • Trust Password: Bartlet pulls up an impromptu one when meeting with Jhin-Wei in the Oval Office to test for himself how genuine the Chinese stowaways' faith is to make sure they haven't been coached. He starts by quizzing him on the identies of the Twelve Apostles, which Jhin-Wei recites perfectly but points out that "faith is the true shibboleth". As Bartlet had not brought up the term in front of Jhin-Wei, Bartlet is convinced that their faith is genuine and fully decides to help them enter the US at that point.
  • Understatement: Toby feebly tries to downplay the disastrous photo of Leo's sister breaking up a school prayer meeting by saying that it's "not good" and that a nearby cop is just "resting" on his nightstick:
    Leo: These are high school students. Two of them are on their knees praying while being handcuffed, with my sister standing next to the cop whose hand is on his nightstick. [...] One of the students is in his marching band uniform! One of the students is black! And you say it's "not good"?! That's a penetrating diagnosis from the White House Communications Director!