Backstory, or How Danny Concannon Covered 5 Stories that Never Happened
(the Behind the Scenes Remix)
CJ: Danny Concannon won a Pulitzer Prize from the fourth row.
MITCH: Danny is more talented than I am.
Danny knows he’s not supposed to be here. The hospital has set aside a their largest conference room for the press briefing. (These things are usually held outside, with the Press Secretary reading from the steps of the building, but now that feels really…exposed.) Danny's supposed to be in that conference room, with the rest of the press hounds, angling for a lead, but nothing is the way it’s supposed to be tonight.
The news first appeared as a TV crawl, a little line of text under the Michigan game playing in the Georgetown bar where Danny had been catching up with his opposite number from the Chronicle. Danny hadn’t been assigned to the Newseum story. It was a fluff piece, basically a PR thing, and he’s the primary political reporter for the Washington Post: PR outside of business hours goes to a stringer. But he should have taken this one, he realizes, as his cab speeds toward Bethesda. A late spring rainstorm has blown up out of nowhere; his thoughts throb to the beat of the windshield wipers: should’ve been at Rosslyn, he thinks, it's my beat; it's mine; should've been at Rosslyn...
He owes that stringer a nice bottle of scotch. He owes Rob, the Chronicle reporter, the price of a drink, since he’d dashed out of the bar and into the nearest taxi without even picking up his tab.
The driver says something, but Danny doesn’t quite catch it. “Sorry—what?”
"Going to the Bethesda hospital,” the driver observes. “Are you perhaps an associate of Mr. President?” The taxi license pasted to the back of the scarred plastic divider says the driver’s name is Ahmed Syed and his careful English implies that he probably wasn’t born to drive a taxi in the American capital.
“Just visiting a friend,” Danny says, automatically, answering with the part of his brain that instinctively protects any possible leads. He shoves a couple of twenties over the divider as they pull up to Bethesda Naval Hospital. He is going to file a story, tonight—this morning, actually, if the dashboard clock is to be believed—and he’ll need a ride back into town.
“Wait here. If it costs more than this, I’ll pay you when I get back, okay?”
“But, sir, this is not a good place to be waiting,” the driver points to the sign marking the ambulance lane.
“If anyone hassles you, drive around the block,” Danny calls back as he dashes through the drizzle and into the hospital, thinking that Jed Bartlet, who was always a stickler for traffic regulations, would make that man an American citizen on the spot. And possibly offer him a bench on the Supreme Court (“if we can’t follow the little laws,” Bartlet always said, “how can we expect to uphold the big ones?”)
The press conference location is not well-marked—hospital administrators keep having to move it to larger and larger rooms—and the usual security staff is not around, but even so, Danny knows he’s not supposed to be on the second floor. Nobody stops him because no one is really in charge (and that’s something he’s going to have to think about, later): he looks vaguely familiar from the campaign trail, from the West Wing, so people just assume he belongs there.
He stops short when he turns a corner and sees CJ at the end of the hall. She’s been crying—her face is streaked with tear-tracked dirt—and Carol is standing by with makeup and water. Toby stands next to them, jotting notes on the back of a hospital brochure. They do not see him.
“…can’t wait,” Danny overhears Toby say soberly, and CJ takes a deep, shuddering breath.
“I know,” she replies, taking a bottle of water from Carol. “I know. I’m ready.”
Danny walks back down the stairs and out the front entrance. He feels dizzy; the damp air is too thick to breathe. He should sit down, he should be in the press conference, he should take notes. But he knows how this story ends and, somehow, he doesn’t want to hear it while standing in a packed conference room surrounded by other reporters. Ahmed Syed, dutifully circling the hospital complex, sees him and pulls over.
Instead of climbing into the back of the cab, Danny opens the passenger door.
“Turn on the radio,” he says. “There’s going to be some news.”
After college, Danny took his brand new English degree and drove across the country. He’d written his senior thesis on the Beat poets and the myth of the road—whither goest thou, America, in thy shiny car in the night?—but he’d never been further west than a visit to his mother’s parents in Wisconsin. He re-reads The Grapes of Wrath while driving through Bakersfield and Dashiell Hammett in Los Angeles. When he reaches Oakland, he sublets half a basement apartment in from an aging hippie and tries to finish his novel. He can’t afford to live in San Francisco, but he can almost see it out the window.
Years later, one night on the campaign trail outside Wabash, Danny and CJ and Sam will map out their personal timelines and discover that they were all in California at the same time. Sam was cramming for his advanced placement exams out in Rolling Hills while Danny was practically right across the Bay from where CJ was enrolled at UC-Berkeley. Turns out they had even attended some of the same events. There had been a walk across the Bay Bridge from Oakland to San Francisco to celebrate one of the first Earth Days...
“I remember that walk!” Danny crows when CJ brings it up. “I got the worst sunburn of my life walking across that bridge!”
“I can't believe you were there, too! My friend Suzanne dropped my camera into San Francisco Bay,” recalls CJ.
“Well,” Josh is slightly mystified by their enthusiasm, “it’s a small world, after all.”
Oakland had been Danny's first newspaper job—first professional newspaper job, since editing the Notre Dame Observer hardly counted. He’d gone to buy gas one day and found a line halfway around the block, gotten to talking to people, ended up writing an op-ed piece on the effect of the energy crisis on migrant laborers who could no longer afford to move with the crops. Someone from the Tribune had called—the hippie had relayed the message since Danny didn’t have a phone. He’d written a column on spec, then a second, then a three-part series. People in Sacramento no longer hung up on him when he asked them for comments. He wrote about how Washington’s decision to resupply Israel during a Middle Eastern war meant that Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the rest of OPEC were embargoing oil, so Central American migrants couldn’t pick California strawberries for shipment to east coast restaurants. It was a story that blended the down-home details of Harper Lee with the huge scope of Leo Tolstoy. And it was all true. His novel couldn’t compete: he put it away in a box of that once held typing paper and moved it with him to J-school, to Dallas, to New York, to DC. He doesn’t think about it again until someone blows up the central span of the Oakland-San Fran Bay Bridge.
Danny wonders briefly what ever happened to that novel and the kid who wrote it. And then he waves his hand, trying to get Nancy McNally’s attention so he can ask a question about security measures at LAX in the wake of the attack.
Danny hears the news from Katie Hijaz, who got it from her editor when she called her story in by sat phone, and the editor heard if from someone at Al Jazeera English, whose correspondent was actually in the press briefing room when CJ made the announcement. So it’s pretty much solid copy.
“Mirabella is pissed,” Katie announces gleefully when they run into each other in the hotel bar, which is basically an ex-pat press club for all the foreign-desk folks in North Africa. “They were hoping to do some sort of working woman meets wedding in the White House, but CJ and the guy—Sam something, he used to be part of the security detail?—just snuck off and got hitched in Maryland. I heard the First Lady was the Matron of Honor, but I haven’t gotten confirmation on that.”
“Simon. Not Sam,” Danny says quietly, because it’s important that they get the story right. But a loud, arm-waving argument has broken out between the guy from Corrierre della Sera and a cameraman from TeleFrance 2. He doesn’t think Katie hears what he is telling her.
Once, when he was working at the Dallas Morning News, Danny covered the crime beat for six months. Writing about politics in Austin wasn’t exactly Woodward-and-Bernstein stuff, so when Brian Forts took some personal time for family reasons (white powder, and lots of it), Danny agreed to step in. He did it partially because the desperate Metro editor promises to let him run with his story on school lunch vouchers and government corn subsidies (a story that went national, sending his byline all the way to the New York Times) and partially because he’s been watching a lot of Law and Order. Turns out criminal court is not nearly as glamorous as it looks on TV: just a series of unlucky people making bad decisions. Danny's biggest story turned out to be a trophy wife from a tony suburb who hired a hitman to off her husband because said husband had been banging his secretary. When the wife took the stand, she seemed genuinely puzzled by the fact that, having bought one beauty, her husband could possibly want another.
“He already had me,” the woman insisted, “and I would’ve done anything he wanted. But that wasn’t enough!”
“And so, you killed him,” concluded the grandstanding DA, shaking his head sadly at all the vice and corruption in this vale of tears.
“Uh, no,” the woman said. And since the press gallery knows her plea bargain rests on implicating the hitman, everyone sat up.
“I’m sorry?” The DA was caught short. “You’re saying you did not arrange to have your husband killed? May I remind you that you’re under oath, Mrs. Sebald.”
“Oh, I arranged to have him killed, all right. But I didn’t kill him. I hired someone to do that.”
The tension leaked out of the press section—same old, same old—and Mrs. Sebald’s attorney approached the bench to explain, yet again, to his client that there is little legal distinction between arranging to kill someone and actually doing the deed.
Danny thinks about that case—the stupid woman, her greedy husband, how glad he had been to hand the reins over to Brian and return to covering politics, which seemed virtuous by comparison. He thinks about it, and then he walks across the crowded briefing room to hand Elizabeth Morales a cup of coffee.
“Figured you’d need this if we hear what we expect to hear about the Veep.”
Liz smiles, “Thanks. What do you think they’ll give as a reason?”
“Ten bucks says he wants to spend more time with his lovely wife.”
“Hmmm,” Liz pretends to consider, “I…don’t think I’ll take that bet. Not that I’ve seen much of Mrs. VP lately.”
Danny wonders if Mrs. Sebald ever had a moment like this, a moment where she weighed up the cost of going further with the relief of just letting her husband take off with the damn secretary. She probably had. And it probably made no difference, just as it makes no difference now. “You know,” he begins, like the thought has just occurred to him,“I heard something about the VP recently that we should probably get CJ to clear up for us…”
Danny doesn’t have the right press credentials to get him into the West Wing anymore and he’s all ready to explain why they should let him in anyway, but the guard just highlights his name on a list, provides him with a badge, and waves him through the East Lobby.
He’s pretty sure he sees Josh as he heads down the hallway and he knows he sees Carol, but neither of them stop him. He almost turns into CJ’s old office, the one nearest the press briefing room, but then he catches himself and continues toward the Oval Office, toward the room that he will always think of as belonging to Leo McGarry.
He knocks gently on the door. Then he knocks a second time.
“Uh—just a minute,” CJ calls and even though the wood she sounds so tired.
He doesn’t give her the minute; he knows she probably wants to wipe her eyes and rescue her makeup and present a collected face to the world, but he doesn’t want to wait. Not on the other side of the door, not ever again. Not even for another sixty seconds.
“Hey,” he says, gently, slipping through the door.
“Yeah. Hi. I, uhm, I just wanted to….” For the first time in a long time, Danny can’t find the word he wants. So he just opens his arms and lets CJ walk into them. She’s kicked off her shoes, but she’s still a little taller than he is even in her stocking feet. She drops her head to his shoulder; he’s wearing his coat but he can feel her tears, wet on his neck when she turns into him.
“How did you know?” she mutters.
“I’ve been—” he brings his hands up, slowly, enfolding her, rubbbing her back gently. “I’ve been watching, babe—I saw you on the news.”