selenak: (Toby and Andy by Amorfati)
[personal profile] selenak
Back when I finished marathoning The West Wing, I went on the lookout for stories about the relationship out of all the many interesting relationships the show offered that had intrigued me the most: that between speechwriter Toby Ziegler and President Jed Bartlet. Alas, there was not much. Now the story I wanted most of all to read would have been a post show having-it-all-out conversation or several, preferably trapped by snow in New Hampshire so neither of them could just leave, but I’d equally been happy with anything set earlier that explored said relationship. Sadly, fandom did not oblige. At a guess, one reason for this was that canonically, both Toby and Jed are eloquent master word smiths, and these aren’t easy to write. I know that’s what intimidated me and meant that when I followed the old advice of “if you can’t find it, write it yourself”, I did NOT write the epic lengthy tale I wanted to read but a short non linear vignette collection. Another reason might have been that a lot of fandom (as well as actor Richard Schiff) was unhappy with Toby’s s7 storyline and found it easier to just ignore it. Yours truly actually did not have this problem in that maybe due to marathoning the show as opposed to living with the characters for years, I didn’t regard it as ooc, but I did want a bit more follow up, as well as looks back. Anyway, all of this resulted in my one and only West Wing tale. (Which you can find here.)

Words and the Men

The title is an allusion to the beginning of Virgil’s Aenead, “of arms and the men I sing”.


In all his years as a political operative, Toby Ziegler has never participated in a successful campaign.

Or so we find out in the “Bartlett for America” flashbacks.

He doesn't count the campaigns which were successful but from which he was fired long before that final goal was reached. When the Governor of New Hampshire can't remember his name during campaign staff meetings, Toby takes some perverse satisfaction out of that. It's a sign he'll soon get fired, which means the campaign will succeed, and he really wants it to. Not because he likes the Governor that much, but because he can see the man's potential.

What brings them together and at the same time causes some of the great tension between them. Toby has his idea of what and who Jed Bartlett could be, and doesn’t take kindly to anything less. This is different from, say, Leo, who of course also always saw and believed in Jed’s potential and who can call him out when he thinks Jed is wrong about something, but does so from a position of a decades long friendship. Not to mention that Leo ultimately sees himself as the Faithful Lieutenant, the one who would and should take the fall for his ruler. Whereas Toby sees himself ultimately as the truth-to-power speaker. He’s not wrong, and it’s an important job, but that he appoints himself to it doesn’t mean he’s infallible and always right.

He doesn't get fired. As the weeks go by, he finds out that the failure to remember his name wasn't personal. Some quirk in Jed Bartlet's mind allows him to remember Roman recipes for fish soup, in Latin, but not the names of the people around him, not for a good while. He does it to everyone; Toby hadn't been an exception, but the rule. Realizing this, Toby feels insulted, so much that he considers quitting.

Because not being valued enough to be personally insulted is just insulting. Oh, Toby.

Then he has his first real argument with the Governor, about the Governor improvising a Thomas Paine quote in the middle of Toby's carefully drafted speech where it has no place. "You can't do that," Toby says. "It destroys the rhythm, the entire cadence. It's barbaric, and you know it."

The Governor is a small man, and when not holding speeches, he's usually soft spoken. But for the first time, his entire attention is focused on Toby, and while he still doesn't raise his voice, there is nothing of that gentle, absent-minded professor attitude he often affects in private here.
"Do I detect a sense of professional jealousy?" Bartlet replies, removing his glasses, sounding sardonic.

I may or may not have developed a theory at the time as to what Martin Sheen’s acting choices of this particular mannerism – Jed removing his glasses when debating with someone, especially if “someone” is Toby – meant. I can’t remember the conclusions I drew exactly anymore; it’s been many years.

"No, a sense of offended aesthetics," Toby says, but the Governor isn't entirely wrong. He would have given his right arm to have written some of Paine's phrases, and can quote most of the first Crisis pamphlet by heart. So, evidently, can Jed Bartlet. "You threw my speech off balance because you couldn't resist showing off," Toby continues.

An hour later, they're still arguing, though the argument has shifted to whether or not Thomas Paine had been right to accuse George Washington of abandoning him, of abandoning his principles. The rest of the staff has returned to talking about polls and campaign strategies, but Toby doesn't notice.

He has also forgotten that he wanted to quit.

I think it was the scene in the s3 opener (or was it the s4 opener?) where Toby is mouthing and counting along with Jed Bartlett holding a speech he’s written and getting upset about a detour that struck me as providing one particular insight for me: among many other things, theirs was a twisted “man and muse” relationship. Toby is a writer, after all, writing for one particular voice, feeling inspired and challenged by it. Which brings us to the next section.


All the speeches ever held by the President during eight years in the White House are indexed and filed somewhere, both in electronic and printed form, with the names of the main speechwriters on them, which isn't how they arrive at Jed's desk, and definitely not how they show up on the teleprompter.

Re: names, the Toby pov sections refer to “the Governor” and then “The President”, because that formality is important to the relationship. In his own pov, he’s “Jed”.

Will Baily, during his first days in the White House, says something about the relationship between writer and orator, how it takes a while for the writer to get a sense of the person he's writing for, to get a grasp on the voice. Jed thinks the reverse is true as well, though more difficult. He's reasonably good at recognizing authors just by a few sentences if he's familiar with their style, and sometimes he distracts himself by trying to figure out who contributed what to the manuscripts he's given; which paragraphs are pure Toby, which are Sam, which are Will, which gags are the contributions of some other member of the writing staff. It's a truly challenging puzzle, not least because any given speech is supposed to have a cohesive style, not to be read as a collection of fragments, and that style is the one people hear when they're listening to his own voice.

Back in his days as a congressman, he started out by writing his own speeches, and quite aside from content, he thinks they sounded different from the lectures he delivered as a professor because these were two voices, two Jed Bartlets. They needed to be.

Medievalist may or may not feel reminded of the “two bodies” idea bout kings here. Jed Bartlet certainly is. Remember the confession scene back in s1?

The idea of professional speechwriters managing to form something that professes unity intrigues and disquiets him, especially when Toby does it, because Toby knows better, and that, too, is disturbing at times. Toby isn't Leo, or Abbey; they haven't known each other for decades. Toby isn't Danny Concannon, either, who for his biography of Abbey that got written during the campaign was granted hours of interviews about the early days, complete with family photo albums. And yet Toby is the one who keeps coming up with statements about Jed that are either too insightful or manage to miss the mark just a tiny but significant bit. These statements are all delivered with the same mixture of flair and precision that marks Toby's speeches, and there you have the presumption summed up, that claim to his mind as well as his voice, as if neither can now exist except as expressed in Toby Ziegler's penmanship.

I was trying to explain where Jed’s part of the tension between them comes from. Which isn’t there between him and any other member of the West Wing staff. And I don’t think it’s just because of their occasional differences of opinion. Take Jed’s reaction when Toby, somewhat out of the blue, deduces (correctly, but I’d really like to know what exactly made him suspect) the (really bad) type of relationship the President had with his father.

When CJ tells him Toby is the leak, he doesn't lie when he says he's not surprised. In fact, he doesn't doubt it for a second. He has learned to identify Toby as an author.

The Indian chess set isn't the first gift Toby receives from the President, though it is probably the one he uses most often. The rest are mostly books, a fate he shares with the rest of the senior staff, though in his case it's not a little satisfying to know the President can never be sure he hasn't already read them, even something as ecletic as Spinoza's Tractatus de intellectus emendatione.

Now everyone in the Bartlet White House is portrayed as smart and most are very well read – pause here and weep for real life America right now, dear reader -, but I think Toby is the only one who manages to beat the annoying quizzes the President occasionally throws their way. That they’re on the same intellectual level is another source of both mental closeness and tension.

The last gift is the pardon. He would never have asked for it, and he is not grateful for it. Instead, he finds it infinitely infuriating, and not just because he found out about it through a news reporter who has managed to get hold of his cell number and asks him about his reaction. Toby hangs up, but it's not too long before a copy of the document itself is delivered. Barren, clumsy phrases, from someone in the Attorney General's office who manages to excel in legal lifelessness, and then that signature, Josiah E. Bartlet, which Leo's secretary Margaret once said was easy to fake. Something interchangeable.

He had no right to make something like that the last word, Toby thinks, and wishes for a shredder. Alternatively, a lighter would do, except that instead of burning the damned thing he keeps staring at it and starts to wonder about a redraft.

Of course he does. In my mind, he sets off to New Hampshire next and gets snowed in once he’s arrived there at the Bartlet residence, see above, but I CANNOT WRITE THAT STORY.


The White House staff does most of the packing. A lot of the books and papers will eventually end up in the soon to be built Presidential library. He might not be able to revisit them for much longer anyway, if last year's episodes repeat themselves. At least something like the inability to see a flag won't endanger diplomatic relations again, but Jed hates the idea of being unable to read anymore as much as he hated the paralysis of his hands and legs. Audiobooks are all very well, but not only are they usually some patronizing reader's digests edition of the real thing, but whoever reads them presumes to dictate the pace at which the book in question should be experienced. It's almost as much a loss of a control he has taken for granted as being carried like a child by the redoubtable Curtis had been.

Multiple Sclerosis: from my laywoman pov, I think the show did a reasonably good job in the way they portrayed it, because they don’t drop it after all the s3 angst, it’s there in the background, and that in the last year of the show, you see the President more and more impacted by it, kept the emotional reality of it for me that was so important to let it be more than a plot MacGuffin.

There are two documents which won't be among the official papers, and he hasn't let anyone else file or pack them anywhere, either, because only two people have ever seen them. He keeps them in his edition of Alfred Marshall's Principles of Economics, which he can be reasonably be sure Abbey will never look into, or any of the girls. And a good thing, too, because reading one of them would upset them too much.

The first document is the one speech written for him which was he wasn't supposed to know about. The speech in the case of Zoey's death, which he made Toby give him that night, just before they found her, because if your own words, ordering murder for the greater good, have condemned your child to suffer for your sins you really need to know there is a reason not to remain silent for the rest of your life. When Zoey was rescued, that speech was redrafted, and that was the version everyone knew, but he has kept the original.

He’s a Catholic, after all. This is his penance.

The other document might yet end up in the Library, he's not sure. His initial fury has burned itself out, but he knows himself too well not to assume there isn't something still left lingering beneath the ashes and the regret.

Arguably, the s7 confrontation scene with Toby was Jed Bartlett at his most cruel in the entire show. But even if you go back to something as relatively harmless as that basketball game in s1, there is just something in Toby that can bring out Jed’s dark side, in a fitting irony since what Toby wants to bring out is Jed’s better self (the way Toby imagines and writes it, of course).

Besides, the words feel too personal, but then, that was always the problem. In any case, he has put it together with the speech. It's a note he received from Toby after apologizing to his staff for the lawyers, the press, the mess, the fear that had followed the weeks after they had made his MS public.

In the first version of this story, my beta was confused and thought Toby wrote that note after his dismissal. But no, what I meant was: post confrontation, burning out of fury and writing of pardon, Jed looks at an old note Toby had written to him back in early season 3, after the above mentioned apology-to-the-staff scene.

Hand written, nothing but a quote he recognized at once, Thomas Paine's first Crisis manifesto:

These are the times that try men's souls: The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value.

He wanted to leave it behind in Washington, he truly did, but he is not able to let go of that note.

And we’re full circle again with the Thomas Paine. Incidentally, finding something that would have meaning for both Toby and Jed and would be steeped in US political tradition had not been easy for this European. Nope, I’m not surprise not that many people wrote about them. But I really wish they would.

Date: 3 Jul 2017 19:24 (UTC)
watervole: (Default)
From: [personal profile] watervole
It's really interesting to read it with the notes - in the case of this particular story, they add a lot.

Date: 4 Jul 2017 05:06 (UTC)
deird1: Fred looking pretty and thoughful (Default)
From: [personal profile] deird1

(Would help if you added a link to the original fic. Took me forever to track it down.)

Date: 6 Jul 2017 00:42 (UTC)
msilverstar: (Default)
From: [personal profile] msilverstar
I love the way you got their voices, both inner and outer! My daughter's been watching TWW lately, I will send this fic & commentary to her when she finishes it.

Date: 10 Jul 2017 00:35 (UTC)
lokifan: black Converse against a black background (Default)
From: [personal profile] lokifan
This is fantastic, and very IC. I totally agree that Jed and Toby's voices, being so distinct and erudite, must've intimidated a lot of writers - but I'd love to read the New Hampshire story.


selenak: (Default)

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