Thursday, December 20, 2007

Post hoc ergo propter hoc



Leo: [on the phone with the New York Times] 17 across. Yes, 17 across is wrong... You're spelling his name wrong... What's my name? My name doesn't matter. I am just an ordinary citizen who relies on the Times crossword for stimulation. And I'm telling you that I met the man twice. And I recommended a pre-emptive Exocet missile strike against his air force, so I think I know how...
C.J.: Leo.
Leo: They hang up on me every time.
C.J: That's almost hard to believe


I headed over to imdb today and was caught by surprise seeing that it was John Spencer's birthday, or would have been. I never had the privilege of meeting Mr. Spencer or knowing him on a personal level, but in some way or another as a performer he was always in my life. As a character actor he was a ubiquitous presence as government agents and other assorted suits and bastards throughout the 90's in films like Cop Land, The Rock and The Negotiator. I later learned of his remarkable work in stage production such as Still Life and Execution of Justice. But John Spencer will always be known for one role and one role only. As President Bartlet's chief of Staff Leo McGarry on The West Wing, Spencer was a distinguished presence amongst an ensemble cast for which there are simply not enough superlatives.

Leo: And you think ratcheting up the body count's gonna act as a deterrent?
Bartlet: You're damn right I-
Leo: Oh, then you are just as stupid as these guys who think capital punishment is going to be a deterrent for drug kingpins. As if drug kingpins didn't live their day to day lives under the possibility of execution, and their executions are a lot less dainty than ours and tend to take place without the bother and expense of due process. So, my friend, if you want to start using American military strength as the arm of the Lord, you can do that. We're the only superpower left. You can conquer the world, like Charlemagne! But you better be prepared to kill everyone. And you better start with me, because I will raise up an army against you and I will beat you!
Bartlet: He had a ten day old baby at home.
Leo: I know.
Bartlet: We are doing nothing.
Leo: We are not doing nothing.
Bartlet: We're destroying-
Leo: Four high-rated military targets!
Bartlet: And this is good?
Leo: Of course it's not good. There is no good. It's what there is! It's how you behave if you're the most powerful nation in the world. It's proportional, it's reasonable, it's responsible, it's merciful! It's not nothing. Four high-rated military targets.
Bartlet: Which they'll rebuild again in six months.
Leo: Then we'll blow 'em up again in six months! We're getting really good at it... It's what our fathers taught us.
Bartlet: Why didn't you say so? Oh, Leo...when I think of all the work you put in to get me to run and all the work you did to get me elected...I could pummel your ass with a baseball bat.


It was Spencer's work on The West Wing that exposed him to his widest audience and as far as I'm concerned where he did his best work. A recovering alcoholic, McGarry was an all-too flawed individual, as a former Vietnam vet he had the military experience to counsel Bartlet in times of war and as a bit of hard-ass he was the one who would do the scolding when someone in the office had gotten off-track. In backup features on the DVD it's established that Martin Sheen's Bartlet and Spencer's McGarry served as the parents of the cast (exactly who was the mother and who was the father is a much bandied about joke) and it shows. Both lent the necessary authority and love to their roles and when Spencer died it absolutely made it clear that a White House under the Bartlet administration could not continue. From his relationship with his assistant Margaret (the always reliable NiCole Robinson) to his show defining speech to Josh (Bradley Whitford) Spencer brought legitimacy to every scene and every relationship on the show. He could always be relied upon as the dramatic fulcrum of the show whether it was his crumbling marriage as a result of his long hours at the office, or under indictment by congress for unconstitutional actions, Spencer's work made the viewer even more invested in the characters and their lives. Hell the man even showed of he could do screwball romantic banter (the most disproportionately challenging thing an actor can do) in scenes with Kristin Chenoweth and Joanna Gleason. Sometimes when you're watching truly great drama you get a certain tingle up your spine as story and character build and build and you get more interested and then more invested. It was John Spencer's work that most elicited that feeling on the show and the world is a smaller, sadder place without him in it.

My 3 favorite small but incredibly powerful John Spencer moments on West Wing:
3. In flashback, a struggling Bartlet campaign is on the ropes and the Presidential hopeful needs something to help convey his message to a wider audience. In a private meeting Leo basically turns the whole campaign around by writing something down on a cocktail napkin and gradually revealing the new message of the campaign. "In my head I keep seeing these words over and over." Bartlet for America.

2. After two seasons of lying through omission, president Bartlet reveals he has MS. Naturally this puts whether he'll seek a second term into question. In the very final moments of the second season at a press conference in the middle of what has to be the most dramatically well-timed rainstorm EVER, the president fields just such a question. No one knows for sure what his answer will be, except best friend and confidant Leo McGarry. As the world holds its breathe awaiting Bartlet's answer the camera cuts to Spencer who firmly and plainly states "Watch this" and then Martin Sheen puts his hands his pockets. Cut to credits.

1. In the end The West Wing was a show about dedicated professionals who loved each other as much as they loved their work in public service. Perhaps no moment in the entire series better epitomizes this as a scene where Leo confronts Josh after his post-traumatic breakdown and reminds him of a simple inexorable fact.
Leo: [to Josh] This guy's walking down a street, when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep, he can't get out. A doctor passes by, and the guy shouts up "Hey you! Can you help me out?" The doctor writes him a prescription, throws it down the hole and moves on. Then a priest comes along and the guy shouts up "Father, I'm down in this hole, can you help me out?" The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a friend walks by. "Hey Joe, it's me, can you help me out?" And the friend jumps in the hole! Our guy says "Are you stupid? Now we're both down here!" and the friend says, "Yeah, but I've been down here before, and I know the way out." As long as I got a job, you got a job, you understand me?

Here's one of the better tribute vids they had on youtube:

6 comments:

Etan said...

I'm not sure I should thank you for making me tear up in the middle of my workday, but I will anyway. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Qadhafi? kaddafi?

sincerely,
fattimus

El Gigante said...

Awww E. I made you cry. That's worth more than any amount of the money I'm not making on the site. As for Fattimus-GET OFF MY DINGY!

Harley said...

Well, now I'm in the mood to watch the West Wing. Hmmmmm, I wonder who'll lend me a copy of the show. Who do I know who has that show on DVD? The questions, the questions!

El Gigante said...

Oh ho ho, if only my Dad hadn't requested them last time he was in town. Ouch. Guess someone will be stuck pony riding to Venture Bros.

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