Three Rock Mountain  

in The West Wing

The West Wing's Toby Ziegler stares straight through you.The cinematographic tone of the series actively encourages a sense of defensiveness as it overwhelmingly shot indoors with an absence of natural light, engendering the feeling of being besieged. Open plan desks picked out by isolated pools of light. Offices like cages for keeping wild animals penned, notwithstanding the fact they have couches in them. Not just because the building is poorly lit, but because it's dark outside. It's always dark outside - both literally and metaphorically. The programme seeks to stress how hard these politicos are working by constantly emphasizing the lateness of the hour. There are several sub-texts to consider here. The first is: Running America is a big job! The more relevant one is however: We're the good guys! See how hard we're working! Given that the output of government doesn't readily lend itself to objective measurement, it is an actual observed trait that persons will seek to demonstrate their utility by reference to the input values (hours worked) rather than hard-to-measure output values (aspirations realised, motherhood and apple pie promoted, civic values of the Founding Fathers served).

Probably due to the large size of American corporations and the impossibility of an individual motivated worker making a meaningful difference to the monolith that is the organisation they work within, this trait is prevalent in the private sector also. It used to frustrate me immensely when I worked in the United States on secondment that, for a reason as fatuous and self-referential as "This crew works hard to get the job done!", I would find myself still onsite in some client's premises until late in the night when any self-respecting Irishman should be in a licensed premises, with or without their workplace colleagues. This issue abated somewhat when I was the one who had the keys to the rental car, as my preference has always been to work smart rather than hard, if there's an alternative to be had. Where people in large orgainsations regularly work long hours it is normally to demonstrate to others how valuable to the machine they wish to be regarded as being. They typically spend significant portions of the working day on minor issues when a determined focus on the urgent and important would see them out of the building and back into the arms of their loved ones by 7:30pm.

Perhaps that's why so many Americans keep pictures of their family in the workplace - so they can remember what they look like when they meet them again, or to remind themselves what they're running away from.

Anyways, back to The West Wing. The character in the picture above is a prime example of this particular disease. This is the Director of Communications, Toby Ziegler, compellingly played by Richard Schiff. The biography for the character given out by the producers of the show notes for context that "Toby is a hardcore baseball fan and also enjoys knocking back a few drinks after work". Maybe he does, but on the show he never seems to leave the office before the baseball players are safely tucked up in bed and the bartenders have stacked the chairs &are getting the mops out. It's the down-home equivalent of my claiming to like Opera in the hope that you'll think I'm a highbrow sort of guy, despite volumes of evidence on this website to the contrary.

There's a scene in one episode of The West Wing where the inner cricle are grappling with an issue of national security. A crucial issue. An issue so vital that those 'not on the inside' are reduced to wandering the halls with moody nervousness, like children failing to understand why their parents are arguing but viscerally understanding that it is Not A Good Thing.

Rob Lowe's character Sam Seaborn chances upon a kiss-&-tell memoir about to be published by a former staffer "who worked here for about half an hour" as he dismissively put it, but more pertinently under Sam's management. Sam calls a meeting of relevant senior staff, i.e. those not currently engaged in saving the world democracy and allocates them chunks of the book for them to idenitfy provabke inaccuracies in order that he may discredit the book in press coverage and avoid reputational damage to the administration. He is blind to the fact that this is displacement activity. He is likewise oblivious to how this discrediting will affect others, nor does he care.

When Toby, a brooding and introspective yet plain spoken New Yorker, questions this approach on the grounds that the oxygen of publicity from the White House would give the book far higher profile than it would otherwise achieve, Sam snaps and reads aloud a passage about Toby himself "..we were playing golf with Communications Director Toby Ziegler, a man whose dark brooding air and unsmiling manner have destroyed the one marriage that we know of..."

A shocked hush falls around the table. The silence hangs like a mist in the room as the more junior staff clench temselves in expectation of a volcanic eruption from Toby. Instead CJ Cregg, the Press Secretary, slowly tilts her head around a floral centerpiece and, having spotted the obvious inaccuracy, breaks the dread silence. "Wait a minute, it was Minigolf, wasn't it?" Toby tilts his head back at her and mumbles "Yeah, Minigolf" in an unfazed what-else-have-you-got-I-can-take-this-all-day manner.

While a beautifully drawn vignette describing the strengths and flaws of the Toby Ziegler character, its even more compelling for the way it describes a camaraderie among the team, mutually supportive and caring, yet still a narrow clique oblivious and indifferent to the existance of those lesser beings outside of the group. Drama portrays too many human relationships as black & white. Even for a programme about politics, The West Wing has a superb grasp of shades of grey.

© Kevin O'Doherty 2007