Monday, February 09, 2015

An Eye for an Eye ...

"You remind me of the man that lived by the river. He heard a radio report that the river was going to rush up and flood the town and that all the residents should evacuate their homes. But the man said, 'I'm religious. I pray. God loves me. God will save me.' The waters rose up. A guy in a rowboat came along, and he shouted, 'Hey, hey, you, you in there. The town is flooding. Let me take you to safety.' But the man shouted back, 'I'm religious. I pray. God loves me. God will save me.' A helicopter was hovering overhead, and a guy with a megaphone shouted, 'Hey, you, you down there. The town is flooding. Let me drop this ladder, and I'll take you to safety.' But the man shouted back that he was religious, that he prayed, that God loved him and that God will take him to safety. Well ... the man drowned. And standing at the gates of St. Peter, he demanded an audience with God. 'Lord,' he said, 'I'm a religious man. I pray. I thought you loved me. Why did this happen?' God said, 'I sent you a radio report, a helicopter and a guy in a rowboat. What the hell are you doing here?'"

Father Thomas Cavanaugh (Karl Malden)

The episode of the West Wing that first aired 15 years ago tonight was one of those episodes that I regard as one of the series' finest hours — and it had many of them that season.

The topics that were addressed in this episode were the death penalty and presidential pardons.

To set the scene: A man had been sentenced to death for murder, and his latest appeal, to the Supreme Court, had been denied late on a Friday. His execution was set for the following Monday just after midnight so his defense team began trying to contact someone in the White House who could lobby the president for a pardon. Time, obviously, was of the essence, and the president was out of the country — due to return on Saturday morning.
Leo (John Spencer): Sam?

Sam (Rob Lowe): Yeah?

Leo: Why Monday morning?

Sam: What do you mean?

Leo: The Court denied his appeal. Why isn't he being executed at midnight tonight?

Sam: We don't execute people between sundown Friday and sundown Sunday.

Leo: Why?

Sam: Hard as it is to believe ...

Leo: You're kidding me.

Sam: No.

Leo: We don't execute people on the Sabbath.

Sam: No.

Leo: Well, that's about the most bizarre thing I've ever heard.

Sam: Leo, I think you're going to find as you go through this weekend that there is virtually no part of this discussion that isn't bizarre.

Now, I don't intend to make this a conversation about the pros and cons of death penalty law — and, for that matter, neither did the writers for the West Wing. The focus was on the question of granting a presidential pardon, not the right or wrong of the law.

Still, it couldn't help provoking some debates the night it aired.

In the finest tradition of the West Wing, there were other stories going on at the same time — and one guesses that must be what life at the White House is like. The big story is the one that requires the involvement of the most West Wingers, but the others must go about their jobs and put out the fires they encounter there.

On this night, for example, Josh (Bradley Whitford) had to meet with a disgruntled campaign manager who didn't feel the White House was giving her congressional candidate enough support.

But the side story in this episode didn't really demand as much attention as side stories usually did on the West Wing. In this episode, the side story about the campaign operative (Marlee Matlin) only served to introduce her character to the audience. She would be back.

The emphasis was primarily on the death penalty and the question of issuing a pardon to someone convicted of murder — and the political aspects that are impossible for those who work for politicians to ignore.

One of the things I always appreciated about the West Wing was its unflinching candor. In one of the best, most honest — yet most understated — scenes of the season, the president had a conversation with his young aide, Charlie. Charlie's mother had been a police officer who was shot and killed in the line of duty, leaving Charlie to care for his younger sister.

His conversation with the president showed all too clearly the kind of passion that surrounds this issue on both sides.
President Bartlet (Martin Sheen): Charlie, I'm going to ask you a question. And this is one of those times that it's OK to tell me I've stepped over the line, and I should shut my mouth, OK?

Charlie (Dule Hill): OK.

President Bartlet: What happened to the guy who shot your mother?

Charlie: They haven't found him yet, sir.

President Bartlet: If they did, would you want to see him executed? Killing a police officer is a capital crime. I figured you must have thought about it.

Charlie: Yes, sir.

President Bartlet: And?

Charlie: I wouldn't want to see him executed, Mr. President.


Charlie: I'd want to do it myself.

Fair enough. No matter on which side of this issue you stand, I think most (if not all) of us can agree on that.

Earlier in the episode, the president had asked Charlie to arrange for his priest (Karl Malden) from New Hampshire to come visit him in the White House. The president wanted to talk with him about the death penalty and whether he should pardon the killer.

The priest didn't show up until a few minutes before the scheduled execution — I don't recall any explanation why.

The execution went ahead as scheduled. There was no pardon.

It was a remarkable, thought–provoking episode. It pulled no punches, and I think it was fair to all sides.

That was the West Wing standard.