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White House

'The West Wing' recap: Smoking jackets are more fun than smoking guns

Season 1 | Episode 4 | “Five Votes Down” | Aired Oct 13, 1999

We open on President Bartlet giving a rousing speech on the pressing need for gun control. I’m sorry, was this filmed in 1999, or last month?

After the speech, we’re treated to an elegant walk-and-talk with the Bartlet Bunch in their tuxedos and evening gowns. As they leave the speech venue, a group of women screech Josh’s name. He’s got a fan club! I hear you, my sisters.

Bad news, though: Despite the President’s barnstorming gun control speech, they’re five votes short of the total they need to get a gun control bill through the House of Representatives. They’ve got 72 hours to deliver the votes without making it seem like they’re scrambling. However, the post-speech planning session seems to focus more on the Chinese food they’ve ordered. To be fair, the dumplings sound delicious.

Leo finally heads home at 2 a.m., disgusted that he may need to seek the Vice President’s help in getting the gun control bill passed, and he discovers he’s not the only disgusted person in his household. Today was his anniversary, and his wife, Jenny, isn’t pleased that not only did he forget, but he didn’t come straight home from the speech as he’d promised. Listen, lady, there was Chinese food!


The secondary storyline of the week is the release of the staff’s financial disclosure reports. Josh wins for the best gifts over $25: a silk smoking jacket and a scrimshaw cigarette holder. Mandy, whose behavior and vocal volume this episode are still mostly appropriate, isn’t pleased to discover the gifts came from a woman and were given before she and Josh had broken up. (“I really thought a nice byproduct of not going out with you anymore would be that you wouldn’t yell at me anymore,” Josh sighs. Us too, Josh. Us too.)

The financial reports are also problematic for Toby, who owns stock in only one company, a tech firm. Toby’s stock zoomed from $5,000 to $125,000 the day after his childhood friend testified before Congress. On the future of tech stocks. At Toby’s request. Not good, Toby.

Toby protests that even if he’d known in advance what his buddy’s testimony was going to be, he wouldn’t have understood it enough to manipulate the stock market. The White House counsel discussing this with him floats the words “federal crime.” Toby looks properly nauseous.

Josh is now strong-arming fellow Democrats into voting for the gun control bill, which everybody admits isn’t as strong as they’d like but is at least a start. Josh threatens to pick a Democrat to run against a Wisconsin representative in the primary if he doesn’t fall in line. He then meets another congressman, Chris Wick, who—wait, did Wick just greet Josh with “dude”? Josh verbally demolishes him, spitting out the types of guns banned in the bill to prove that Wick doesn’t understand what he’s opposing.

Wick seems taken aback by Josh’s aggression and eventually admits that he’s miffed that he hasn’t gotten any special attention from the President. Josh angrily agrees to set up a chess game over snifters of brandy, but warns, “He’s going to kick your ass.” I assume Josh means in chess, but if Wick calls the President “dude,” who knows what could happen?

NecklaceLeo is trying to make up for the anniversary snafu by arranging a fancy dinner in his home, and is debating the merits of hiring a violin player. The prevailing advice is that it’s cool at first, but eventually it gets weird to have some guy hanging around your dining room.

He’s also procured a pearl Harry Winston choker for lucky Jenny. C.J. and Mandy are beside themselves (“Can I try it on?” “Can I rub it against my teeth?”), while his assistant mutters about how lucky he is to earn $40,000 a pop on the lecture circuit.

But Leo is not just wowing women with jewelry; he’s now meeting with Rep. Mark Richardson, who’s actually educated about guns and says he won’t support the bill because it doesn’t go far enough. He chides Leo for giving up and approving a watered-down version that omits several weapons that should be banned.

Leo starts to argue to this black congressman that it’s black bodies being wheeled into emergency rooms, and Richardson cuts him off: “You write a law that can save some lives, I’ll sign it. In the meantime, please don’t tell me how to be a leader of black men. You look like an idiot.”

(Side note: I’m amused at the way Aaron Sorkin is recycling parts of his 1995 film “The American President” here. In it, lobbyist Annette Benning chides President Michael Douglas for supporting a toothless gun control law that doesn’t go far enough in saving lives. And The Newsroom has tackled the gun control issues too. I’ll give Sorkin this: He’s consistent and persistent with his favorite political issues.)

Anyway, Leo comes home to a beautifully set dinner table and bad news. Jenny tells Leo she can’t live like this anymore. When she learned that he was going to slip away from their belated anniversary dinner to meet briefly with the Veep, it was the last straw.

Poor Leo. His wife announces she’s leaving, and he still has to meet with the smarmy Vice President? That’s a bad night.

Actually, Vice President Hoynes isn’t smarmy at all in the meeting. He notices that Leo is upset and acts like a compassionate human being, immediately offering to go after the needed fifth vote. Then he asks Leo when he’d last been to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. Leo wants to know what meeting he could possibly go to that would remain anonymous.

Hoynes says he attends a meeting with eight other high-level political figures, all friendly to the administration. It looks like a card game to outsiders.

“I had no idea,” says a gobsmacked Leo.

When Leo meets with the Bartlet Bunch the next day, everybody so badly wants the belated anniversary dinner to have worked out for him that it hurts. He lies, of course, and says she loved the necklace and yes, having the violin player hanging around was awkward. Leo needs a hug.

And now, friends, let us gather to witness a marvelous phenomenon: President Bartlet, who’s been having back trouble, has mixed his pain pills, and he is high as a kite. He saunters into the Oval Office, tells his staff he loves them all, and then calls Sam “Toby.”

President 420 insists on troubleshooting Toby’s stock purchase problem for him: “Toby. Toby, Toby, Toby … Toby’s a nice name, don’t you think?”

Sam finally suggests that Toby voluntarily reduce his salary to $1 for one year. Everyone but Toby thinks this is a fine idea.


Having settled the Toby issue, the President heads back to bed. Before he leaves, he announces, “Please let me just say this: I’m seriously thinking about getting a dog.” More stoned Bartlet, please.

Veep Hoynes is having his promised meeting with Texas Rep. Tillinghouse, who’s Texan by way of Sorkin (“I want my wife to have a gun, I want my daughter to have a gun, and damn it, I want one too.”)

Tillinghouse warns Hoynes that some members of Congress are furious at the way Josh and the White House strong-armed them over this issue. Hoynes sympathizes and then does some maneuvering of his own, pushing Tillinghouse to vote for the bill and to remember that someday, Hoynes himself will be President.

And the next day, wouldn’t you know it? Vice President Hoynes gets the credit for pushing the gun control bill through the House. The Bartlet Bunch all look like they got punched in the mouth. And in the end, Josh acknowledges that it’s a useless law that won’t make an impact on the issue of guns in America anyway.

And on that futile note, we cut to Leo approaching a door guarded by a Secret Service agent. Leo tells him that he’s there for the card game, and he enters the room, resigned.

So there you have it. Fifteen years later, and real-life politicians are giving basically the same speech that Bartlet gave in the opening scene about the urgent need for gun control. This episode, which aired in 1999, could run today without changing a word of the political debates, and nobody would bat an eye.


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