Monday, March 14, 2011

The Stackhouse Filibuster

"Don't ever, ever underestimate the will of a grandfather. We're madmen, we don't give a damn, we got here before you and they'll be here after. We'll make enemies, we'll break laws, we'll break bones, but you will not mess with the grandchildren."

President Bartlet (Martin Sheen)

It's hard for me to believe that it was 10 years ago today that one of my favorite West Wing episodes was shown for the first time.

The program was aired about three–quarters of the way through the series' second season — which was a season of incredibly high quality, I must say. And I couldn't imagine what the creators of the series would do for an encore — until later that year, after terrorists hijacked four airplanes and crashed three of them into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, postponing the start of the season and inspiring Aaron Sorkin to write "Isaac and Ishmael" for the West Wing.

It aired less than a month after the attacks.

Although it had no real place in the time line of the series, the episode was its highest rated of the year and is still mentioned by people in conversations about Middle Eastern history and conflicts.

That, of course, was still in the future.

On this night 10 years ago, I marveled at the story I saw (co–written by Sorkin, by the way) and literally couldn't imagine how the program, which had long since become my favorite on network TV, could be any better.

As a matter of fact, the series actually did exceed the standard it reached on this night a decade ago a couple of times before the season ended. And it would match or exceed that standard several times before going off the air in 2006.

But at the time, in nearly two full seasons, it was a level the series had rarely achieved, even though it had already developed its reputation for quality writing, acting and, well, everything.

In the episode, the West Wing staffers were anticipating a big congressional victory with their health care legislation that appeared to enjoy bipartisan support and were focusing on their plans for the weekend when an unexpected filibuster began in the Senate.

The filibuster was the "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" kind in which a single senator ties up the chamber, which is sort of old–fashioned these days. Modern filibusters tend to be more organized, more coordinated, and they tend to resemble tag–team wrestling matches, but this filibuster, like the one in the old Jimmy Stewart classic, was engineered by a single senator.

That senator was a character named Howard Stackhouse, an elderly senator from Minnesota who had proposed an appropriation to fight autism but had been turned down. That request had been inspired by Stackhouse's love for his autistic grandson, a motivating point that he did not mention, but the White House staffers figured it out, and they rushed to help.

After an impassioned defense of grandfathers, the president told his personal aide, "I want to call senators. We'll start with our friends. When we're done with those two, we'll go on to the other 98."

The story of Stackhouse's improbable battle was told through three characters' e–mails to relatives.

One of the best lines in the story came from C.J. Cregg, the press secretary, who was explaining to her father why she wouldn't be able to attend his milestone birthday party.

"Tonight, I've seen a man with no legs stay standing, Dad, and a guy with no voice keep shouting," she wrote. "And if politics brings out the worst in people, maybe people bring out the best."

There were gathering clouds in the story that would play roles in the series for years to come, and followers of the series could look at that show now and see foreshadowing of future problems with the vice president — and the president's deception about his health.

But few dramatic TV episodes could match "The Stackhouse Filibuster" when it came to inspiration.