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The West Wing: “Inauguration, Part I”/“Inauguration: Over There”

Illustration for article titled The West Wing: “Inauguration, Part I”/“Inauguration: Over There”
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“Inauguration, Part I” (season 4, episode 14; originally aired 2/5/2003) and “Inauguration: Over There” (season 4, episode 15; originally aired 2/12/2003)

I have this fantasy about President Obama’s second term, and I don’t think I’m alone. First of all, I imagine he’s going to win because people in America are a lot smarter than anyone gives them credit for, and my theory is the election’s going to show this.


See, it’s an unfortunate truth in our country that the first term of any president is tempered by the inevitable events of the four years following the day they’re sworn in. They want to get stuff done for sure, but they also want to get reelected, and it’s harder and harder in today’s harsh, Fox News-tainted political climate to do both at once. The second term, then, is really when shit gets done.

So my fantasy involves Obama getting reelected, and within a few days of taking office, laying the smack down on everybody. Gay marriage? Boom! Women’s right to choose? Shabam! Mandatory karaoke every weekend? OVERDUE! And that’s all within the first week or so, meaning he’d have three more years and 51 months to do other cool shit.

I’m not saying everything Obama would do would be perfect. But I bet we all want a president to do something! To be remembered as a person who did everything he or she possibly could to best serve the people. Our political system is deeply flawed, and it’s exhilarating to imagine that someone would do all they could to make it work for the United States, rather than let it get in the way of, well, everything.

(Yes, I’m aware this is the president and not some dictator, but I think the fantasy still applies to some degree. And no, I’m not a professional politics knower-of-things, but I’m flattered you’d think that!)


People have told me that there’s a later election on The West Wing that mirrors that of Obama vs. McCain, but I see a lot of parallels between Bartlet vs. Ritchie and Obama vs. Romney: Both elections pit an actual, living and breathing person against a sentient microwave oven. And Bartlet instigating foreign policy changes during his inauguration speech is exactly the kind of gumption I’d love to see from Obama.

“Inauguration” parts one and two kick off with that revelation: Bartlet is discussing last-minute speech material with his team, who all inform him that the changes have leaked. Leo fields a few people’s concerns, puts them at ease, directs them to the cheese tray, and knows he just misled all these fine folks. Well, really he’s just trying to ease the pain when they find out that the president is about to rewrite foreign policy on-the-fly without consulting anyone.


Like much of The West Wing, both episodes of “Inauguration” are about obsession—the little bug in your ear that won’t shut up even during the most important moments. For Will, it’s wanting to know every single word Bartlet’s ever spoken so he can find the perfect word later, when it really counts. For Donna, it’s taking a metaphorical bullet for her new boyfriend even at the cost of her own reputation, because he’s just that great of a guy (though real-life Christian Slater still a chooch, etc). For Danny, it’s that damn cricket player that he can’t find. And so on—such is life in The West Wing.

For Bartlet, it’s learning small pieces of info about the situation in Equatorial Kundu: Two factions are at war (though really, one is just killing the other), and they are making people do terrible things like swap houses—i.e. the inhabitants raping each other for the promise of a safe night. It’s not the kind of situation in which the U.S. would normally intervene, though, because apparently there is a distinction between a genocide and “acts of genocide”; besides, according to U.S. foreign policy, the country isn’t supposed to get involved yet. (Not that I’m totally and utterly confused as to why Bartlet can’t get the image of those atrocities out of his head.)


Even though he’s spending his pre-inauguration days picking out the right Bible to be sworn in on, the situation in Kundu is nagging at him. Why shouldn’t he get involved? What kind of a world does he live in that would keep the U.S. from doing so? How obvious can Aaron Sorkin be about making his protagonist go rogue?

That’s not really the point, though. I can overlook how cut-and-dry this situation is because even though I knew what was going to happen, “Inauguration” surprises me in how Bartlet comes to his decision. Well, it’s not just this one thing, but he stays up late watching an old black-and-white movie where a group of toy soldiers go marching off to battle. He sees the toy soldiers, all in line, rewinds, watches them again, sees images of real soldiers, back to the toy ones, and calls Leo.


What I love about that scene is how mechanical and rote those soldiers are, and how deeply and emotionally their image resonates with Bartlet. Perhaps it’s because the image is so straightforward that Bartlet sees war as an inevitability and an automatic decision. He actually delivers the news to his staff with a calm and calculated nature to his voice, never once letting his feelings creep into his cadence. It’s only when he notices his entire staff getting to work and ignoring him that he deviates from his sobering speech.

There are studies about police officers and teachers, observing how they act in their first weeks on the job and how they act later on. And without fail, the people that have jobs with some cultural model—occupations like firefighter and postal worker, which have been represented in society for years—act like how they imagine a police officer or teacher might act when they start out. They walk differently than they normally do; they say things that they’ve accidentally cribbed from movies. Over time, they find a middle ground between how they normally are and this perceived norm, and they go from there. “Inauguration” depicts Bartlet’s “presidential” moment, only he doesn’t act as he imagines a president would—he acts as he imagines a good and optimistic president would.


Then there’s Will Bailey, who’s taking his behavioral cues from God-knows-what. Not in a really bad way or anything—even though he’s been around for a few episodes, we still don’t know too much about him. Well, a few things. He’s somehow managed to out-verbose Sam, talking even when nobody is listening, when frequently they are not. He’s the kind of guy who will go to a place he’s not wanted and will himself to be completely ignorant of that fact, cementing his place by speaking up even when the majority of people would rather he stand back and listen. Plus, on top of that, he’ll bring someone else, in this case his half-sister, who truly nobody knows. He breaks windows previously unbroken; he requests transcripts previously unrequested—because there are so many of them.

I do know what’s driving him, though: the thrill of calling an audible. He reveals to Toby at the beginning of “Over There” that he heard a story once: Seems Toby persuaded Bartlet to change his State of the Union address less than 24 hours before delivering it. Toby marvels at Will’s ability to learn that kind of information, as there were only a handful of people in the room when it happened. “Well, if I’d been one of them, I’d have repeated it to everyone I met,” Will retorts.


I love the idea that there might be a secret government fan club where people role-play historical moments like Civil War re-enactors—but instead of staging memorable battles, they’re focused on policy discussions. And it doesn’t surprise me much that Will Bailey is that group’s founder and probably plays the role of “Toby.” Much like Josh, he doesn’t want to be The Guy, he wants to be the guy that The Guy can count on; just look at what happened with Sam’s campaign. But because he clearly spends a great deal of time thinking about the highlights, he’s missing all the stuff that happens in the middle, when he writes new language for a boring part of a speech and is forced to ignore important details because, well, that’s just the way it is.

And now, despite all that he’s learned, he remains a serial optimist, willing to stand up to the president himself. Yeah, I’m sure he’ll fit right into this show. He believes in the power of words! Sorkin finally found a perfect surrogate.


So much of both of these episodes is about Kundu, and just how terrible things are over there. Like I mentioned, making the decision to intervene is not difficult—as the episodes roll out, we learn new facts about the death toll. Both parts of “Inauguration” argue that the U.S. should feel a responsibility to intervene when horrible things are happening overseas, regardless of the consequences or whether or not it’s “right”. It’s always right, is the point.

Despite the darkness, there are plenty of moments of levity—what I’ve come to expect from The West Wing, unless it’s in the middle of a gut-wrenching finale. CJ seduces Danny, getting him to the point where he’s just about to completely lose himself in her perfume, then she stops, teasing him, and heads into the briefing room where she reports on the death count in Kundu. Bartlet sends away for a special Bible that’s the size of a Volkswagen, and desperately pulls Charlie aside to try and get a different one (though after all his wishy-washiness about the Bible, he almost doesn’t even have one when the inauguration’s about to start). By the time Josh, Toby, Charlie, and Danny are throwing snowballs at Donna’s window, I’d all but forgotten about Kundu.


Inaugurations are a formality, just as acting on your passion is on The West Wing. And like any formality, you get it done, and move on.

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