The West Wing: He Shall, From Time to Time

Well, I'm in the new place, squashed but intact, and desperately behind on the thesis, but remaining confident that the final draft WILL be ready by Monday. In the meantime, a quick blog post.

This is the episode of The West Wing in which Leo and the audience discover that President Bartlett has a relapsing remitting form of MS (aptly described by Bartlett as 'the good kind'. He eventually starts to develop early signs of the bad kind in season 4 and gets slowly worse, in an very accurate portrayal of the early stages of the disease).

But, of course, that's not what we're interested in here! The interesting bit Classics-wise comes at the end, when Bartlett has recovered from his attack and is preparing to give the State of the Union. One person from the line of succession (or however you describe it in a republic) has to stay out of the State of the Union in case Guy Fawkes blows them up, and Bartlett decides to give a little pep talk to the chosen person, just in case. The person in question (The Secretary of Agriculture) walks in and it turns out he's The Mayor! So now I'm spending the entire scene expecting him to turn into a giant snake and eat Bartlett. Anyway, The Mayor has brought Bartlett a present: the Constitution of the United States of America, translated into Latin.

Harry Groener as Mayor Richard Wilkins in Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Latin is used a lot on The West Wing. Bartlett, being both a Catholic and something of an amateur classicist, loves it and refers to it frequently (comparatively speaking) and it's even used in episode titles - not just for religious references, like 'In Excelsis Deo', but Roman proverbs like 'Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc' as well (all of which I'm sure I'll post on at some point).

I have to confess, though, I'm a bit confused as to why anyone would want a copy of the Constitution in Latin. Harry Potter and Winnie the Pooh make sense, they're a good way to practise, but the Constitution? Does anyone read that for fun? The Mayor explains that it was a school project that got published, which does make more sense, and that he's highlighted an appropriate passage, which Bartlett reads and simultaneously translates, because now he's just showing off. It is this passage that the title of the episode is taken from.

The whole thing is really just an excuse to have Bartlett read that particular part of the Constitution out loud, in tones of due reverence. The first series of The West Wing is, in some ways, the most fun because it's still so in love with its concept. This episode is just thrilled at the whole idea of the State of the Union, and the wonderfully-named W. G. Snuffy Walden's music swells with pride as Bartlett walks out. Even the MS storyline, which the show would do such great things with in Season 2, was originally written because Aaron Sorkin wanted to engineer a situation in which the President would be sitting in bed watching daytime TV (and getting quite into it). So the Latin is really just a tool to get Bartlett waxing lyrical about the State of the Union.

It is an appropriate present for Bartlett though, who does love his Latin, for the above mentioned reasons. The Mayor doesn't mention whether the Latin in question was Classical Latin or Vulgate Latin (the Latin used by the Catholic Church) but, being a school project, it was probably Classical. Bartlett would love it either way, since he's also interested in Classics, a character trait which, in some cases, allows for very interesting parallels to be drawn between the US and the Roman Empire. But I have a thesis to finish, so that will have to wait for another day!


  1. Nice post!

    I believe they still call it the Presidential Line of Succession, Republic or not.

    I always thought it was too much of a set piece when Bartlett reads (and translates with ease!) some Latin, and in many ways felt that it was all a bit contrived.

    That said, having a character appreciate Latin in a show of this status got me so exicted I quickly forgot about whether it was contrived or not.

    Bartlett is an immensely likeable President, especially so because he's a bit of a classicist.

    I always understood his character's like of the classics as a method of illustrating his humanity.

  2. I haven't watched but it sounds like a good film.


  3. I never watched West Wing, but in this instance, at least, the easy translation could be seen as a bit of a dodge. The President could be a constituional scholar or simply have studied the sections on the powers and duties of the President (from which the title of this post comes) since he is new to the job. In any case, it would not be out of the question that he would have some ready knowledge of what the passage is supposed to say. That's definitely so if he trotted out exactly what the original English says. Translation does not work that way!

    The first question that came to mind, though, was which of the umpteen flavors of Latin pronunciation did he use?

  4. He didn't, he only read out the English, but whenever Bartlett does speak Latin it tends to be Church Latin with Vulgate pronunciation.

  5. He's a big Lucretius fan, though.

  6. I remember in the Christmas episode he wanted to give Zoey a deeply obscure book of Latin fables - will have to go re-watch it and check which one. I can't remember if the Latin references went away after Sorkin left - but for once, I do have the whole series on DVD, so I will find out!

  7. Having just watched the last season there is at least one episode which is latin named, but it does seem the that the latin references drop off when Sorkin leaves.
    On a seperate note the church latin makes sense in terms of the story line. Didn't Bartlett go to Notre Dame to train to be a priest? So church latin would fit the bill as it were.

  8. Yep, he decided against it when he met Abby. I guess that's partly why his Latin - the church Latin anyway - is so very good.

  9. Nice post!!!
    The West Wing TV Show is good show. I have seen some episodes of this show. And I like this show very much.

  10. I must say that The West Wing TV Show is a great show having a great cast with superb storyline. Thanks.


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