Tuesday, May 14, 2013

A Fairly Ordinary Act of Fatherhood

"The president temporarily handing over power to his political enemy? I think it's a fairly stunning act of patriotism ... and a fairly ordinary act of fatherhood."

Will Bailey (Joshua Malina)

One of the things that I really liked about The West Wing when it was on the air was the way the writers managed to work little history and/or civics lessons into the plots.

I never felt that it was just a TV show or just a drama. There often was, to use a word the real president likes, a teachable moment. (And Lord knows the American public can use a few history lessons.)

It was the best kind of teachable moment, really. It wasn't preachy or condescending. It was entertaining and educational at the same time.

Mind you, the series didn't always do that sort of thing, but it did it often enough, and one of the very best examples of the technique was the episode that aired 10 years ago tonight.

"Twenty Five" was the season–ending episode of the series' fourth season. A week earlier, first daughter Zooey Bartlet (Elisabeth Moss) was kidnapped while celebrating her college graduation. The president (Martin Sheen) and the first lady (Stockard Channing) were told what had happened at the beginning of the episode that aired 10 years ago tonight.

They proceeded to make the kind of mistakes that might be expected from worried parents who happen to be in the public eye 24/7. The first lady, for example, decided, after several hours, to make an appeal to the kidnappers for the release of her daughter. She was dissuaded from doing so when it was pointed out to her that it would send the message to the kidnappers that they had succeeded in creating chaos in the White House.

The president, recognizing that a distraught father is in no shape to manage the affairs of state, decided to temporarily step aside. Such a circumstance has never happened in American history, but the Constitution, with the help and clarification of the 25th Amendment, spells out the line of succession that is to be followed.

As is the tradition when a president dies in office, the immediate successor would be the vice president. But, in the West Wing universe, the vice president had resigned a few episodes earlier, and the office was vacant.

According to the Constitution, if there is no vice president, the next person in line is the speaker of the House. Just one problem there, though. In the universe of the West Wing, the president was a Democrat, and the speaker of the House (John Goodman) was a Republican.

That may have been hard for some people to imagine at the time, given the fact that, in reality, the president and both chambers of Congress were in Republican hands. If such a scenario had occurred a decade ago in the real world, it wouldn't have been a political concern for the president to temporarily hand over power to the House speaker — other than that technicality that prohibits someone from simultaneously holding positions in two branches of government.

But it was a more wrenching decision for the president and his staff in the West Wing.

It made for undeniably dramatic television. And it set up one of the most understated lines in TV series history when Goodman said to the president's staff, "Relax, everybody. Breathe regular."

That line was delivered after it was clear that the West Wing staff had been experiencing considerable angst over the invocation of the 25th Amendment. Most of them probably hadn't been breathing regular — least of all Toby (Richard Schiff), who had just become a father in a neat, if a bit transparent, secondary story line.

If anyone could understand the president's conflict, it was Toby, and he seemed to alternate between the fiercely defensive father he had just become and the dedicated public servant he was.

"There's no one in this room," he whispered to the president moments before the House speaker took the presidential oath of office, "who wouldn't rather die than let you down."

It was quite a cliffhanger — from a series that re–defined the word.

And it was a well–written story about a scenario we can all hope no president will ever face.