The West Wing on the Music of Oratory

Mrs. Bartlet: "You are an oratorical snob." President Bartlet: "Yes, I am. And God loves me for it."

Two days ago, on the occasion of Mario Cuomo's death, I mentioned his ability to "think in public" through his major speeches, notably his address on private faith and public policy at Notre Dame.

This morning, readers Allison B. and then Kevin M. talked about the music of spoken prose and the allusive power of 20th-century speakers from Cuomo to Robert F. Kennedy.

This evening reader David M. closes the loop with an old West Wing segment that bears on exactly these questions. The first two minutes of "War Crimes," an episode from Season 3 of the program in late 2001, could have been in response to  ... well, to a blog post 13 years later.

The clip above is legit as of the time I post it, from YouTube. If it turns out to be unauthorized and you can't see it any more, after the jump you'll find a transcript (via David M.) of the exchange I'm directing your attention toward. Placeholder note: Although, as noted over the years, I am not a spiritual person, my inner sense of the proper shape and pace of an English sentence is heavily affected by having heard, recited, and engraved into my brain passages from the old (Thomas Cranmer) version of the Book of Common Prayer thousands of times through my youth. If you watch the West Wing clip you might see why I mention this.

Back to military discussions soon. See transcription after the jump. Envoi: A dozen years after this show appeared, it's conventional to make fun of faster-paced-than-real-humans-could-manage Aaron Sorkin banter. But these two minutes are a reminder of what was impressive in this show.

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By David M., on the music of speech in The West Wing

"Last night my wife and I were watching episode 6 from Season 3 of The West Wing, during which there was an exchange between President Bartlet and his wife, which summed up brilliantly just about everything that you are about, Cuomo, and also the subject of your most recent post ...

"On the subject of the writing of words to be spoken with power and effect by someone else, and, oh yeah, the problems with contemporary journalism and society, I give you Aaron Sorkin (below).

"It helps to know that this entire exchange was part of a brisk walk from the presidential helicopter, into the White House, a brief pause in the oval office, a stroll across the portico to the door of the residence." [JF emphasis added in the transcript.]

Charlie: Good afternoon.

Mrs. Bartlet: Hi Charlie.

Charlie: How was church?

Mrs. Bartlet: It was fine.

President Bartlet: It sucked.

Mrs. Bartlet: Stop it!

President Bartlet: It sucked!

Mrs. Bartlet: You’re talking about church.

President Bartlet: Aw, like I’m not already going to Hell.

Charlie: What was the problem?

Mrs. Bartlet: He feels the homily lacked panache.

President Bartlet: It DID lack panache.

Mrs. Bartlet: It was a perfectly lovely homily on Ephesians 5:21: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church, and gave himself up for her.”

President Bartlet: Yeah, she’s skipping over the part that says, “Wives be subject to your husbands, as to The Lord. The husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the Church.”

Mrs. Bartlet: I do skip over that part.

Charlie: Why?

Mrs. Bartlet: 'Cause it’s stupid.

Charlie: OK.

Mrs. Bartlet: “Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the church, and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her having cleansed her by
the word, that he might present the Church to himself in ...” something …

President Bartlet: “…in splendor.” And I have no problem with Ephesians. And anytime you want me to cleanse you with the washing of water, you know I’m up for it.

Mrs. Bartlet: Then what IS your problem?

President Bartlet: HACKERY!

Mrs. Bartlet Aw, c’mon.

President Bartlet: This guy was a hack! He had a captive audience. And the way I know that is that I tried to tunnel out of there several times. He had an audience and he didn’t know what to do with it.  

Mrs. Bartlet:  You want him to sing “Volare?”

President Bartlet: It couldn’t have hurt.

Mrs. Bartlet: Oh God.

President Bartlet: Words! Words! Words when spoken out loud for the sake of performance are music. They have rhythm and pitch and timbre and volume.  These are the properties of music. And music has the ability to find us, and move us, and lift us up in ways that literal meaning can’t. Do you see?

Mrs. Bartlet: You are an oratorical snob.

President Bartlet: Yes, I am. And God loves me for it.

Mrs. Bartlet: You said he was sending you to Hell, right?

President Bartlet: For other stuff. Not this … You can’t just trot out Ephesians—which he blew, by the way! It has nothing to do with husbands and wives. It’s all of us. St. Paul begins the passage, “Be subject to one another out of reverence to Christ.” … “Be subject to one another …”  In this day and age of 24-hour cable crap devoted to feeding the voyeuristic gluttony of an American public hooked on a bad soap opera that’s passing itself off as important, don’t you think you might be able to find some relevance in verse 21? How do we end the cycle? “Be subject to one another."

Mrs. Bartlet: So. This is about you.

President Bartlet: No! It’s not about me. Well, yes it is about me. But tomorrow it will be about somebody else. We’ll watch Larry King and see who. All hacks off the stage! Right now! That’s a national-security order.  

Mrs. Bartlet: I’m going to the residence. I’m taking a bath. I’m turning on Sinatra.  

President Bartlet: How does Mrs. Sinatra feel about that?

Mrs. Bartlet: Peace be with you.

President Bartlet: (singing Sinatra style) “You make me egg foo young …”