Monday, February 27, 2017

The Cerebral Nature of the West Wing

Sam (Rob Lowe): I don't know how you do it.

President (Martin Sheen): You have a lot of help. You listen to everybody and then you call the play. Sam, you're going to run for president one day. Don't be scared. You can do it. I believe in you. [moves chess piece] That's checkmate.

I was a fan of West Wing when it was on the air, seldom missed an episode. I liked them all, but the episode that was first shown on this night in 2002, "Hartsfield's Landing," has always been a special favorite of mine, probably because it was so cerebral.

After 15 years, I would say it has aged well.

West Wing was always a cerebral show, but the episode "Hartsfield's Landing" was especially so. It was also a great illustration of how effective presidents gather information to make decisions.

Presidents don't do that in the same way, of course. Each president has been an individual and thus has had his own way of doing things. America being the diverse country it is, no president's approach is going to be favored by everyone — nor will one president's approach necessarily work for another president — and, of course, times change, circumstances change, people change. Still there are always lessons to be learned from presidencies that are judged to have been successes — as well as presidencies that are judged to have been failures.

Jed Bartlet (Martin Sheen) was a complex president, and he used a variety of methods to make decisions, but they always boiled down to what he told Sam (Rob Lowe) in this episode: "You listen to everybody and then you call the play."

He picked Sam's brain and Toby's (Richard Schiff) over a couple of games of chess in this episode. He had just returned from a trip to India, where he had been given some chess boards. He had decided to give them to the staffers as gifts and proposed to play them simultaneously, Sam in his office and Toby in the Oval Office.

As I say, the president picked their brains but on different matters. It kept him aware of things he may have forgotten. It was his way of "seeing the whole board" — a good chess analogy. With Sam, he discussed a standoff between China and Taiwan. With Toby, he discussed their recent conversation about whether the president was still trying to live up to his deceased father's expectations.

Seen from the perspective of the 2016 election and its aftermath, this episode that was written more than a decade earlier offered some bad advice to future Democrats, particularly those who may have heeded it last year.

As they discussed the president's likely opponents in the upcoming general election, Toby told Bartlet, "Make this election about smart and not. Make it about engaged and not, qualified and not."

In general, that is good advice, but, with the benefit of recent hindsight, I would add to that, "Don't think for a second that excuses you from having to put forth an agenda for the future."

The West Wing was a busy place, as I have no doubt the real one is, and there were always minor stories going on. "Hartsfield's Landing" was no exception.

While the president was having these power chess games with Sam and Toby, Josh (Bradley Whitford) was aware of the fact that New Hampshire was holding its first–in–the–nation primary that day, and a tiny town called Hartsfield's Landing (clearly inspired by Dixville Notch) would be announcing its vote total shortly after midnight. The handful of votes cast in that tiny hamlet would dominate the national news for more than 20 hours — until the votes in the rest of New Hampshire were counted.

With New Hampshire being the president's home state, Josh wanted the president to score a comfortable victory in Hartsfield's Landing so he instructed his assistant Donna (Janel Moloney) to call a couple she knew who had been supporters of the president the first time but were against him this time. He wanted them to change their votes to improve the president's showing in Hartsfield's Landing.

Donna couldn't call from the West Wing since it was federal property so she took a cell phone out into the freezing February night and called New Hampshire from the park across the street, lobbying for the president right up until the time the couple left to cast their midnight votes.

In the end, Josh gave in. "Let 'em vote," he came outside to tell Donna, and they went back to the White House to await the returns from Hartsfield's Landing.

There was also a feud between C.J. (Allison Janney) and Charlie (Dule Hill) over a missing copy of the presidential schedule that is better watched than described. If you haven't seen it, do so. Trust me.

Speaking of C.J. ...

One of the things I really liked about the West Wing was its devotion to detail. Oh, it was always possible to nitpick, but it was usually on tiny points that wouldn't be obvious to most people. For example, in this episode, which featured chess so prominently, only chess experts would have been able to tell if Bartlet referred to chess moves that were real or fictional or if he used terminology that was real or fictional. To a non–aficionado, if it sounds legitimate, that is enough.

My father loves to play chess, but he wouldn't know if the "Evans Gambit" is real (it is) or if there is such a thing as the "Fibonacci opening" (there isn't). For that matter, I didn't either until I did some research — and Dad was the one who taught me to play.

Sometimes when I was watching West Wing I couldn't tell if I was watching a dramatization or a documentary. None of the events on the West Wing were real, of course, but the show's depictions of events and TV broadcasts were always perfect.

"Hartsfield's Landing" provided an ideal example at the very end, one that was foretold by C.J. earlier in the episode when she spoke of how she liked the tradition of the people of that little town gathering together to cast their votes at midnight.

"They all gather at once ... it's nice. There's a registrar of voters. The names are called in alphabetical order. They put a folded piece of paper into a box. ... Those 42 people are teaching us something about ourselves, that freedom is the glory of God, that democracy is its birthright and that our vote matters."

As the activity continued to swirl and percolate in the West Wing, even at midnight, the television monitors showed the proceedings in Hartsfield's Landing.

On the screen the name of an obviously young woman was called by the registrar. As she brought forth her ballot, the onlookers were told that she was 18 and was voting for the first time. The room burst into applause.