The West Wing: “Swiss Diplomacy”
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The West Wing: “Swiss Diplomacy”

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The West Wing

“Swiss Diplomacy”

Season 4, Episode 9

From what I can gather on Wikipedia, “Swiss Diplomacy” is only the second episode, after season one’s “Enemies,” to not feature Aaron Sorkin’s name in the writing credits—teleplay, story, or otherwise. Both episodes deal with Vice President John Hoynes being really uppity and stubborn. COINCIDENCE? Probably.

In any case, and mostly for my own amusement, I’ve gotten into the habit of checking out the opening credits to see when Sorkin’s name appears, almost as a challenge to the whole “Sorkin famously wrote every episode in the first four seasons of The West Wing” belief. Now, obviously if a man’s name isn’t on the actual credits and he, you know, created the show, there’s a good chance he still had a lot to do with the actual episode. This we know is true (unless he’s the kind of guy who would fire his entire writing staff except for his ex-girlfriend).

Still, maybe it was a self-fulfilling prophecy, but I wasn’t wild about “Swiss Diplomacy.” There were a lot of extremely high stakes in the previous few episodes (the election, Amy being really hot, etc.), and not that many in this episode. The Ayatollah’s son needs a simultaneous heart and lung transplant, and the Swiss ambassador is working to get the president to sign off on doing the procedure in the United States. It’s their only option beside Japan, a country that has never successfully performed the procedure. Toby realizes that the administration asked Karen Kroft to introduce a gas bill that was wildly unpopular, and it costs her a job in the parks department alongside Leslie Knope; and in typical Toby fashion, he feels really guilty and is trying desperately to right the wrong. Plus, Sam learns that Will Bailey is not going to be running his campaign, and he’s only in two or three scenes. Yeah, this ain’t an awesome debate or anything.

There is a lot of private drama in “Swiss Diplomacy,” though. The debate and election/post-election episodes were dominated by scenes that a theoretical person living in The West Wing universe might see: televised sparring matches, news stories about how Bartlet walked off with a landslide victory. This episode takes place largely in private meetings.

To start us off, the Swiss ambassador requests a meeting with Leo out of the blue. He was approached by Doctors Without Borders, a group approached by the Ayatollah’s brother-in-law, who speaks for the man. All the details are already in place, too. They have a donor, they merely need to have an American doctor sign off on doing the procedure. The president discusses it with his advisers in the Situation Room (10 minutes too early, because the actual operation wouldn’t be starting for 11 minutes), and decides to move forward with the plan. Later though, CJ notices the Ayatollah has issued a statement. “Our nation can take care of its own. Interference from the West is an affront to Islam,” it says. To which the president picks up a book and slams it down on his desk, needing to get up and get some air.

First of all, Bartlet’s not one to get visibly angry, hardly ever. Usually he just hides behind his smarts and becomes increasingly verbose the more something pisses him off. But not this time. He physically has to remove himself from the room for this one. Because the Ayatollah arranged this whole operation himself, right? And wants it to happen more than anyone? So this statement isn’t meant to do anything other than make sure he keeps up appearances as hating America and all it stands for. Bartlet is super-pissed because he’s a firm believer in being open; he asked for a grand public debate because the American people would benefit from seeing all the cards laid out on the table, no cheating. Still, the Ayatollah can’t ask for help in a time of grave need without feeling the need to publicly backpedal.

It shows how far Bartlet has come. After all, he’s the one who hid his MS from the American people for a while, and when he was forced to come forward with the news, it almost ended his political career. He was empowered by the fact that America still embraced him, though, and he probably is eternally grateful to them for doing so. So on the one hand, he could easily shrug off the Ayatollah’s comments as a necessary evil—playing a stupid little public game, even though privately the man’s grateful beyond words. But Bartlet’s seen the light when it comes to telling the truth, and can’t handle the fact that another powerful ruler doesn’t share his view. It’s not surprising that he cancels his coffee meeting with the press: What’s the point of trying to be upfront if this kind of thing is just going to happen anyway?

The episode also contains two examples of how vocal support, both in public and private, can be a liability. Karen happily introduced the gas tax when the White House told her to, and it cost her a job. Toby feels incredibly guilty and responsible, but Karen doesn’t care. She believed in the tax, saw its potential to garner more money to fund renewable-energy research, and willingly took the hit. She could have run away from it, but she stood her ground at the cost of a cool gig. Meanwhile, Sam is back from California, and gets a chance to sit down with the president and discuss his strategy. He promises Bartlet that he’ll be campaigning on the president’s agenda, to which Bartlet insists Sam stand up for himself. Sam was against Bartlet’s Medicare idea, so there’s no reason to support it on the campaign trail. “Run toward yourself,” he insists. “You lose, you lose. But if you waste this, I’ll kill you.” Basically, Sam, don’t fuck this up by pretending you’re something you’re not, for the sake of a few interviews.

There is perhaps no character on The West Wing with a bigger divide between public and private persona than John Hoynes. For the better part of the show so far, he’s met with the president and the White House staff on numerous occasions, making it very clear that he doesn’t care for Bartlet one bit. Publicly though, he’s the doting vice president who speaks up when he has to, and occasionally gets to reign over a small domain he’s created for himself. The understanding is that he doesn’t make his dissent known, and in return he can remain the VP and receive Bartlet’s blessing in 2006 when he presumably will run for the presidency.

Josh gets wind of something early in “Swiss Diplomacy:” It seems Hoynes is gathering a little army of Hoyne-a-maniacs—precinct captains—who will be standing by the guy come election time. Tripplehorn, the House minority leader, is upset, because in theory he would like to run for the presidency too, and is having a hard time recruiting his own precincts. Josh can’t believe either one of the guys would do such a thing so close after Bartlet’s victory; the White House needs time to actually get things done before it gets ripped apart by playing politics. And the worst part is that Josh is getting pulled in the middle. Triplehorn thinks Josh is in Hoynes’ pocket (which, given their history, he very well might be), and refuses to do anything to support the president unless Josh demonstrates that’s not the case.

So Josh heads to Hoynes’ office and asks him to stand down. He’s met with complete shock—Hoynes is offended, even, that Josh would ask such a thing. He brings up a talk the two of them had on Air Force Two, and then snarkily posits that Josh would have been great at Leo’s job—as Bartlet’s lackey, presumably. “No zealot like a convert,” Hoynes says. He knows he’s lost Josh’s support, and my guess is that Hoynes will back off this precinct captain thing for now, but double up his efforts in secret in the coming weeks. After all, he’s gotta look out for No. 1, especially when his theoretical No. 2 has completely changed teams.

Of course, Josh realizes later that Hoynes’ surprise was for two reasons. If he was, in fact, rafting as he says he was, there’s no way he could have made the calls to Iowa and New Hampshire to recruit those captains. Weirdly, even though Hoynes and Bartlet don’t like each other, it was actually the president himself who did the dirty work. Maybe not on purpose, but he certainly didn’t discourage the precinct captains from thinking what they wanted. In public and private, Bartlet has stopped campaigning. “Swiss Diplomacy,” however, introduces a whole new level: super-secret implied private. And on that level, no one stops campaigning, ever. 

Stray observations:

  • I'm going to be taking a week off next week, as I'll be in Montreal (read: NOT AMERICA) working for the Just For Laughs festival, with work coming out of my eyeballs. I'll be back the week after with all sorts of Christian Slater chatch-ariffic observations.