Monday, May 07, 2018

When the President's Daughter Went Missing

President Bartlet (Martin Sheen): Would you consider, instead of living in France with your boyfriend for three months, staying here, living in your room and being a candy striper or surfing?

Zoey (Elisabeth Moss): A candy striper?

President Bartlet: Or surfing. You could spend the summer working in a pet shop. We could play Yahtzee and watch movies at night.

Zoey: Dad, what fantasy is it that's going through your head right now?

President Bartlet: What daughters would do their whole lives if I had my way.

For most families, college commencement is a great occasion — a time of pride in the accomplishment of one of their own.

It is sure to be the same for a president's family — but with the added anxiety that comes whenever someone from the first family is involved. There is always a chance, however slim it may be, that something will happen to the graduate.

I don't know how many children of sitting presidents have graduated from college in our history, but I do know that nothing has happened to mar those occasions. They have all gone off as smooth as clockwork.

Such was not the case in the episode of West Wing that first aired on this night in 2003, "Commencement." The president's youngest daughter, Zoey (Elisabeth Moss), was graduating from Georgetown University, and her father (Martin Sheen) was to deliver an address at commencement. He was still wrestling with what to say when the big day arrived.

And there were a lot of other things going on. Toby (Richard Schiff) and his ex–wife were expecting a baby at any time, and Toby wanted them to remarry. He wanted it so much he had taken the step of investing in a house that his ex had told him was her dream home.

Primarily, though, Washington Post reporter Danny Concannon (Timothy Busfield) had gotten wind of something the president really wanted to keep under wraps — the fact that, one year prior, he had ordered the assassination of the defense minister of a fictional Middle Eastern country who had been planning terrorist acts against the United States — among them destroying the Golden Gate Bridge.

At the time, the White House had manipulated news flow to bolster the impression that the United States had not been involved. That had eroded considerably, though.

Of course, there was also the matter of finding a replacement for the vice president, who had just resigned.

If that seems implausible, remember that within a decade of the passage of the 25th Amendment, which provided a procedure for filling a vacancy in the vice presidency, that procedure would be used not once but twice. It hasn't been used since, but odds are that it will one day. Nevertheless, no one thought back in 1967 that it would be used in 1973, when Gerald Ford was selected to replace Spiro Agnew, and 1974, when Nelson Rockefeller was chosen to replace Ford after Ford became president.

History is like that. When one event occurs, people know it probably will play a role in another event, but they never know how soon that will be. The Kennedy assassination in 1963 was the catalyst for the 25th Amendment. Kennedy's successor, Lyndon Johnson, served with no vice president for more than a year — until he had won the 1964 election with Hubert Humphrey as his running mate.

Humphrey, therefore, was the occupant of the vice presidency when the 25th Amendment was approved, and few people probably thought there was a need for it. After all, the nation had been through such periods before, but the 25th Amendment spelled out that procedure — along with providing a line of succession.

Back to the West Wing timeline, which dealt with the 25th Amendment in the last episode of the 2002–2003 season.

Fast forward a year. Five suspected terrorists who had been under surveillance had disappeared, and the feds were under heightened alert.

Thrown into the mix was the fact that Zoey was planning to leave for France after commencement to spend three months in the French countryside.

But she never got there. At a party on graduation night, she was abducted and one of the Secret Service agents assigned to protect her was shot and killed.

West Wing had a reputation for being "The Left Wing" for its political slant, but the truth was that it was extraordinarily realistic. Even conservatives had to concede that.

And while it may seem unlikely that a president's child could become ensnared in a global political situation such as the one depicted 15 years ago tonight, it is really no less likely than many of the things we have witnessed in our nation's history.