LadyGhosts of TV Past

Ladyghosts of TV Past: The West Wing 1.15, “Celestial Navigation”

After last week’s stand-alone episode, “Take this Sabbath Day,” we get right back to a more typical three-to-five storyline episode. Sorkin uses one of my favorite techniques in this episode, where the story is told in flashback style. Josh is narrating the past thirty-six hours to an audience listening to a lecture about what life in the White House is like. Throughout the episode, Josh’s cell phone is ringing, and he’s continuing the be briefed on a sensitive situation he can’t disclose.

Writing this recap has been tricky, because I want to quote the entire episode line by line. There are funny lines, sarcastic lines, and lines that you really have to hear delivered to be appreciated. I have done my best to give you a summary here, although I know I’ve probably left out some parts, because there wasn’t a moment to take a breath in these 41 minutes of television.

Josh sits down to begin the chat knowing that Supreme Court nominee Roberto Mendoza has been arrested for a traffic violation in Connecticut, and that Sam and Toby are on their way to get him out of jail. Josh begins his narration of the past thirty-six hours.

The flashback begins with the senior staff getting ready for the day, preparing for the press briefing on the Bartlet bill signing, which will bring $700 billion of new money to education. They’ve decided to move the briefing to 2 p.m., because the bill will be signed by then. As they break, they receive word that Debbie O’Leary, secretary of Housing and Urban Development has called Republicans racist.

As the president is signing the bill with its usual fanfare, the question about O’Leary’s behavior was asked by the press. The president implies that he thinks O’Leary should apologize, and she is summoned to speak with Leo on the matter.

Leo is very firm with Debbie, even as she voices how having to apologize will screw her over. Once she understands she has no choice, Leo does show that on a personal level, he feels for her.

The day continues with CJ returning from work after having a root canal. This is the part of the program you just have to hear – CJ trying to speak, with cotton balls in her mouth, and Josh mocking her. It’s obvious that CJ can’t give a press conference, so Josh confidently volunteers. CJ tells him not to get hostile. Danny tries to tell him not to get up there, and Josh is, well, hostile.

The press throws Josh some questions, all of which he fumbles. The greatest line of the episode comes out of this press conference, that the president has a secret plan to fight inflation. This gets thrown back into Josh’s face for the rest of the episode, as it should.

As the senior staff is reeling from this debacle, word comes down that Supreme Court nominee Robert Mendoza has chimed in on the Debbie O’Leary issue, telling the Chicago Tribune that the president was wrong to make her apologize.

Mendoza is summoned to the White House, and unlike most people who arrive within an hour of such a phone call, Mendoza informs them that he’ll be there in the next two days, for he and his family are on vacation and they’ll be driving down from Nova Scotia.

Leo demands that the senior staff gather at 7 a.m. to brief the president on all that has happened in his absence (he left after the bill signing, and got in at 3:30 a.m.). As Bartlet learns of Josh’s press conference debacle, and of Mendoza’s comments and long road to Washington, he remains cool, yet sarcastic.

Upon learning that Josh did the press conference, Bartlet starts to lay into his senior staff:

Bartlet: You told the press I have a secret plan to fight inflation?

Josh: No, I did not. Let me  be absolutely clear, I did not do that. Except, yeah, I did that.

Bartlet:  Josh, I’m a little confused.

Josh: Sir, there was this idiotic round robim. There’s no way they didn’t know that. They were just mad at me for imposing discipline and calling them stupid.

Bartlet: Before we go on, CJ, if there is blood gushing out of a head wound you’ve just recieved from a stampede of bison, you’ll do the press briefings.

CJ: Yes, sir.

Bartlet (back to Josh): A secret plan to fight inflation?

Josh: There was no turning them back.They wouldn’t take no for an answer. I denied it for a half an hour.

Bartlet: Were you clear?

Josh: I was crystal clear! They said, do you think that if the president has a plan to fight inflation it’s right that he keep it a secret? I said of course not!

Bartlet: Not only did you invent a secret plan to fight inflation, but you now don’t support it?

Josh: When you put it like that…

Toby: Mr. President, as much as we’d love nothing more than to stand here and watch you beat the living crap out of Josh, there’s actually a bigger fish to fry.

Bartlet: What did Mendoza do?

Toby: He told the Chicago Tribune you were wrong to admonish Debbie O’Leary and to make her apologize.

Bartlet (pointing to Leo): I didn’t, he did.

Leo: Well, you told me to.

Bartlet: I said to fix it.

Leo: I did fix it.

Bartlet: Well, it’s broken again, Leo.

Toby: Frankly sir, it’s because your nominee for the Supreme Court is handling himself in a manner that’s totally unprofessional.

Bartlet: We will have the first of what I think will be a series of discussion about professionalism another time, Toby. Where is Mendoza?

Sam: He’s on his way, sir.

Bartlet: Right now?

Sam: Yes sir, but he won’t be here until the day after tomorrow.

Bartlet: Is he coming in from Neptune?


Back to the story unfolding as Josh speaks to the lecture hall:

Toby and Sam eventually reach Mendoza (in real time), where they flash badges and freak out the police officers in this quiet New England hamlet. When the officer says he still thinks that Mendoza may have been drinking, Sam tell him why that can’t be so – Mendoza has a health condition where alcohol could kill him. The officer looks surprised, and becomes more cooperative. When Toby talks to Mendoza, he assesses that yes, Mendoza is being difficult, but he’s also embarrassed  that this case of racial profiling happened in front of his son.

Having these two cases of racism presented in this episode was a good way to bring this important issue to light. Debbie O’Leary mentions to Leo that she holds the highest position of any African-American woman. Mendoza tells Toby that he was pulled over because he looked like a Roberto Mendoza and he was coming to rob his house.

Sam and Toby do get Mendoza out of jail, and the officers agree to go with them to apologize to his wife and son. Josh gets one last call during his presentation, and he tells the moderator that once Mendoza is appointed, he can come back and tell the rest of the story.

5 replies on “Ladyghosts of TV Past: The West Wing 1.15, “Celestial Navigation””

You didn’t mention my favorite scene, when Charlie has to wake up the President! “I mean, who is this? And what could you possibly want?” “Mr President, I need you to dig in now. It wasn’t a nightmare, you really are the President.” I love this episode so much.

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