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Recap / The West Wing S 06 E 13 King Corn

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"King Corn" follows the same day in three campaigns for president—Russell, Santos, and Vinick—from the point of view of Donna, Josh, and Vinick, respectively. The stories run sequentially in the episode, but they are basically parallel in time. Each point-of-view character gets a 5:45 a.m. wake up call; they each see the same news broadcast; and each candidate gives a speech at the Corn Growers Expo.

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The title "King Corn" refers to Iowa and the fact that it produces a lot of corn: corn is king. Presidential candidates feel pressured to make promises that they would never otherwise make because Iowa holds the first caucus, and it's important to do well early in the race. The example in this episode was the ethanol pledge.

The movie King Corn came out two years after this episode aired[1]. It's not really related other than it focuses on the corn industry in Iowa and its impact on the nation at large.

Teaser

Several Iowa hotels are shown, and most of them have a sign saying "Welcome Iowa Corn Growers." The action opens in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, as Donna gets out of a car and checks in to a hotel. She goes in to an informal meeting with Will and other staffers for the Russell campaign in the hotel lobby. They discuss business for a minute, including mentioning the other "fringe" Democratic candidates, and, conspicuously, a young guy looks at Donna a lot with a big grin on his face. Will says, "The more wackos you put around him, the more Hoynes looks just like another clown." The meeting breaks up, Donna sits down with Will, and they briefly discuss her trip to South Carolina.

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Donna leaves and gets on the elevator, but before the door closes, Josh grabs it and gets in, talking on his phone. They see each other and it's a little uncomfortable. They ride up together talking curtly about their campaigns. Josh's guy isn't doing nearly as well as Donna's. They walk down the hall together and it turns out that their rooms are across from each others'. Josh has a problem getting his door open, in a scene almost exactly a repeat of one in "20 Hours In LA." Donna opens it for him, and he goes into the room. The sexual tension is as clear as possible. Donna goes in to her room. After a moment, Josh goes to her door and stops just short of knocking on it. He goes back to his room, still has trouble opening it, and goes in.

Main theme and titles.

Act I

Donna is sleeping and gets a 5:45 a.m. wake-up call. She starts her morning routine with the TV, checks her phone for messages, brushes her teeth (there's a Russell sign in the bathroom for a reminder). The story on the TV is about an execution of a Turkish woman:

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TV anchor: Bartlet administration officials stress that. while they are saddened by Tukey's decisions to allow the execution to go forward, the United States remains committed to strengthening ties with Turkey."

The scene changes to Russell's Iowa campaign headquarters: lots of desks, computers, maps, and dozens of staffers. It looks very professional and very busy.

A staffer lists the agenda for the day: the American Legion pancake breakfast, some other stuff, and on to the Iowa Corn Growers speech. They underscore this last one:

Staffer: Where are we in the ethanol speech?
Will: V.P. loves ethanol. He bathes in it every morning.

The staffer also asks for a comment on the Turkey situation and Donna relates what the President said. Another staffer goes on about the Ethanol speech and lists lots of ethanol facts and then lots of corn-based foods. Corn is important, is the message.

There are five days until the caucuses, and fourteen to the New Hampshire primaries. Donna and Steve are assigned to go see the fringe candidates, and Will mentions something about one of them wants the military to occupy schools to prevent violence. He asks Donna to come by the expo so Bob can thank her for working on the fringe guys.

Donna and two staffers are on the road to visit the fringe candidates. The next one has been in federal prison for refusing to pay income tax. They briefly debate the wisdom of Iowa being the first state to have a caucus. They pull into a place with a big chain for a gate, from which hangs a sign depicting a big revolver and saying, "Screw the dog, this property protected by Smith and Wesson."

Will and Vice President Russell are talking on the campaign bus. Russell rehearses some stock lines. They discuss the corn growers expo, and then Russell goes to greet some supporters on the bus. Before he meets them, Will goes over who they are and what they were there for. Russell is shown here, as always, to be competent and personable, but not inspired and in need of micromanaging. Will watches him work with a disappointed look on his face.

Donna and her crew are seeing a Mr. Edgars, who has a sign up in his home saying "Edgars: the friendly fascist." Donna reviews one of his positions with him, which is that all citizens should be required to carry concealed weapons. Donna asks if he doesn't think that that would lead to anarchy, and he says, "What we got now is anarchy." It doesn't get better from there.

The next presidential candidate sings and plays guitar. He's playing a not-quite-accurate version of "Peace Train" when the scene changes to him.

Russell is getting back on his bus. A staffer gives him the names of the people he's about to see, so he can call them by name and seem more personable. They go over the order of appearance for the corn expo speech, and mention Hoynes and Santos in passing. Russell predicts what Vinick will say (that ethanol is a colossal waste), but Will predicts that Vinick will flip (it turns out later that Russell was right). Russell says the following:

Russell: I was in the Senate the last time Vinivk gave his ethanol speech. Whew. Passionate. If it had been a tie, I don't know what I would have done.

They keep discussing the issue; Russell knows Vinick is right on the issue, but he's still going to make the ethanol pledge.

Donna's next candidate wants to pay the President, the Cabinet, and all members of Congress a salary of one dollar a year. " Yeah, make 'em get a real job." He's outside, carrying a bucket of what might be pig slop, and wearing a big fur hat while they're discussing this. Donna goes over the rest of his platform: ban motorcycle helmets and color televisions, drop out of the United Nations, abolish Medicare, and totally privatize Social Security. "We gotta get the government out of our damn pockets!" Donna asks him if he's sure he's a Democrat.

Russell's bus and motorcade pull into a stadium arrival area. He and Will discuss some business as he enters the arena. They walk through a curved hallway lined with Secret Service agents. They are surrounded by staff, and Russell congratulates Donna on doing a good job in South Carolina (again, he's told what to say right before he says it).

Donna tells Will that they can't put those fringe candidates on the stage with serious people, and describes some of the people she met. Will goes over some news with Russell; he looks concerned and unsure about a situation in Louisiana (a freight train derailed and they had to evacuate the area; it might explode and level a few city blocks). Will also goes over Russell's position on ethanol once again. In the background, we hear Russell being announced, and he runs on stage.

Russell: Now I'm not saying this just because I'm in Iowa, I say this everywhere I go: we need more ethanol production.

Act II

The scene opens on a bed, and we see a pillow. The phone rings and a hand reaches out... Josh removes the pillow from his head and answers his 5:45 a.m. wake-up call. He gets up and follows some of the same routine that Donna did, except he messes most of it up. He walks across the cold bathroom floor and then puts on gray socks (Donna's were on already), makes coffee but overflows the pot (Donna had it set up and just switched the coffeemaker on). He turns on the news, and sees the exact same news report as Donna did about the Turkish woman.

We see Helen Santos bringing breakfast to her children in a hotel room. She walks over to the next room in the suite, where Santos’s staff is working around one table in a small hotel living room. Matt Santos and Josh are in there (Russell was not in his staff meeting). Santos is directing a lot of the meeting, asking to see a copy of something so he can weigh in on it. They go over the appearances for the day, which include the Coffee-Bean Caucus and the nation’s oldest Dairy Queen. They mention that they’re going to fly somewhere, and the Corn Growers Expo.

Helen asks Matt what he’s going to say about ethanol; Josh answers, “Best thing since soft-serve.” She makes the counter argument. Matt Santos just makes faces. After the expo, Santos’s all-white staff is going to prep him for a debate on race, which he of course finds ironic. The meeting breaks up over a conversation about the Turkish woman and another counter argument about ethanol.

Santos is traveling in an unlabeled mobile home. He’s going to go hunting with a county operative. They discuss ethanol again; Josh coaches him again. Josh refers to antagonizing voters in New Hampshire and asks if he wants to go to North Dakota next to tell them that South Dakota has a cooler sounding name—a reference to the first season “big block of cheese” episode where a delegation from North Dakota made a similar argument. Santos talks about the history of farm subsidies. He knows what he’s talking about. Josh coaches more. In the cafe, Santos talks about immigration; Josh is exasperated.

Santos:You’re trying to steer me toward middle-of-the-road positions that will appeal to C-SPAN viewers.

Josh: All six of them.

They keep talking and debating. Matt is concerned about issues like minority children growing up poor and fatherless; real issues that affect real people. Josh continues to coach him about what it will look like if he talks about those things.

They get on a plane... and it turns out that Santos is the pilot.

The next scene is the Santos Winnebago arriving at the Corn Growers Expo. Santos is reviewing the speech and clearly isn’t comfortable. They meet up with his wife. Santos decides he’s not going to take the ethanol pledge; he’s going to go out there and tell them what he really thinks. Josh tells him he has to do it; if he doesn’t, he won’t get any votes and then he won’t be able to do anything. Santos goes to the stage, and Josh says, “Matt, take the pledge.”

Santos is introduced and goes on stage. He eyes the teleprompter, pauses for a moment, and takes the ethanol pledge (he’s clearly choking it down, though). Josh is happy about that, but Helen walks away disappointed.

Act III

Arnold Vinick answers his wake-up call (also 5:45). He gets up, looks at a picture of his wife, and gets into his morning routine. He hears the same news report that Donna and Josh did.

The next scene is his staff in a medium-sized room. This session is quieter than the other two, although it’s larger than Santos’s. Sheila goes over the schedule, which ends with the Iowa Corn Growers Expo, of course. There are a few awkward looks when that is mentioned. Vinick notices and his campaign manager changes the subject. Bob suggests trying to get some mileage out of the Turkey thing and Bartlet’s response. The meeting breaks up. Sheila tells them that they have more money, and Bob talks about his polling numbers.

Vinick’s transportation is a couple of SUVs and a minivan. In a cafe Vinick is talking about Bartlet’s trade policies, which are "not working." He’s smart and knows his material, although he’s not always giving the popular answers. Throughout, Vinick, Sheila and Bob discuss the ethanol issue.

He goes to the same Coffee Caucus place that Santos did. He takes questions and answers them smartly and with conviction. They also talk about corn sweetener and the ethanol pledge.

Vinick’s motorcade arrives at the venue for the Corn Growers Expo. He sings "Happy Birthday" to his granddaughter over the phone. He asks for the speech Bob wrote for him.

He’s announced and walks onto the stage. He starts off a bt like Santos, pausing for a moment and silently reading what his staff wants him to say on the teleprompter. However, he doesn’t make the pledge.

Vinick: I know what you want to hear. Telling people what they want to hear is the easiest thing you can do in politics. That’s not why I’m here. That’s not why I’m running for president. Now I know that the ethanol subsidies have been good for some of you. But mostly, it’s a windfall for huge conglomerates. I'm embarrassed by it, and I think you should be, too.

Sheila and Bob look horrified.

Act IV

At a bar, Josh and Ned are watching Vinick’s speech. Helen Santos shows up and grimaces a greeting. She asks Ned to excuse them, and talks to Josh. She asks them why they’re in Iowa. Josh explains his strategy: Russell isn’t a real problem; Hoynes will take him out because he’s smart and has a lot of political capital. When Russell folds, his support will go to Hoynes, unless there’s a “not Hoynes” candidate to absorb it. Helen goes to bed.

Josh goes over to Matt Santos’s table, where he’s meeting with a staffer. Vinick arrives; he recognizes Josh and greets him. Santos and Vinick greet each other, and Vinick says they’re going to stay and eat. He compliments Santos, they talk politics a bit. They discuss Santos’s education plan; they don’t agree on it, but they’re very respectful and friendly with each other. Santos even says he’s proud of Vinick’s stance on ethanol.

Josh talks a bit with Sheila and Bob. They talk about the ethanol pledge; Josh ends the conversation with, “The Republican field is wide open. We’re just trying to find a way to stay in the game.”

The scene cuts to the hotel hallway, set to the song, "Desire", by Ryan Adams. Will says good night to Donna and goes to an ice cream vending machine. The camera tracks the process of the machine retrieving an ice cream bar, and the look on Will’s face.

Santos goes to his room and looks lovingly at his wife and kids before he goes to bed.

Vinick is shown getting ready for bed in a robe. Toby is on TV doing the White House press briefing. Vinick goes to bed and turns off his light.

Donna is in her room in pajamas setting up the coffee pot, and she opens her door to get something from the hallway. Josh walks up at that point and slows down. They pretend not to see each other. Josh pauses and enters his room as Donna watches from her room’s peephole. The chorus of “Desire” plays as this happens, underscoring the... desire, I suppose.

The episode ends with Josh getting his wake-up call again, with his head under the pillow.


This episode contains examples of:

  • Another Side, Another Story: The same day in the Iowa campaign trail is played from three different perspectives, following several people involved in the Russell, Santos, and Vinick campaigns respectively.
  • Didn't See That Coming: Arnold Vinick, the Republican candidate, comes out against ethanol (in Iowa) in a speech railing against large conglomerate farm companies. Though to be fair, he had a known history of being against it anyways, so trying to change his stance now would just paint him as a flip-flopper.
  • Friendly Enemy: When they meet, despite being on different sides of the political aisle Santos and Vinick are perfectly willing and able to sit down and have an amiable conversation with each other, and their disagreements are respectful and without rancor.
  • Not So Different: All three of the candidates showcased have about the same position on ethanol: it's overly subsidized and costs more in petroleum products than it ends up saving in the long run. The way the three candidates deal with this underscores their essential character and position, however:
    • Russell enthusiastically makes the pledge; he's hypocritical, two-faced and will gladly sell out his principles for power and advantage.
    • Santos makes the pledge, but is clearly reluctant; he's reluctant to sell out his convictions, but is clearly pressured into doing so by circumstances.
    • Vinick refuses to make the pledge; he sticks to his guns no matter what (and is also old, experienced and in a secure enough position to feel able to do so).
  • Remember the New Guy?: This is the first time we're seeing Vinick's campaign team, but there's clearly established relationships already.
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