Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Lincoln Metaphors Abound in 'The Stormy Present'

"The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present."

Abraham Lincoln
Dec. 1, 1862

The episode of The West Wing that aired 10 years ago tonight ("The Stormy Present") focused on a rare relationship in American life. It is the relationship that exists between American presidents — regardless of any of the usual barriers, including party affiliation and ideology.

It has been said before that those who have served as America's president belong to the most exclusive club on the face of the earth, and that may be true — although, now that we have a living ex–pope, perhaps the papacy, not the presidency, is the most exclusive club.

America has seldom, if ever, had more than five living presidents (former and present) at any given time in its history. Until last year, though, it had been centuries since there had been a living ex–pope.

On this night in 2004, President Bartlet (Martin Sheen) was attending the funeral of a former president whose views were often at odds with his own. En route to the funeral, Air Force One gave rides to a couple of other former presidents — played by James Cromwell and John Goodman. Cromwell's character (apparently based on Jimmy Carter) was more closely aligned with Bartlet philosophically and had been duly elected president; the conservative Goodman (apparently inspired by Ronald Reagan) was closer politically to the deceased former president and had served as the unelected interim president when Bartlet invoked the 25th Amendment and stepped aside temporarily during the search for his kidnapped daughter.

The story gave viewers a glimpse into the relationship between chief executives.

They had all dealt with the pressures of the presidency. They knew its isolation. They understood what Harry Truman meant when he called the Oval Office "the crown jewel of the federal penal system." A president could be candid with them in a way he could not be with anyone else.

He as much as said so himself. "When we were elected, I really thought we were going to own the place, do it differently, better," Bartlet said to his speechwriter, Toby (Richard Schiff), at one point. "Now I realize the men on this plane are the only others who have been there before, who really know."

"There ought to be a warning sign when you hitch up to be leader of the free world."

Martin Sheen (President Jed Bartlet)

As a backdrop, Bartlet was monitoring developments in a growing crisis in Saudi Arabia, and he got the kind of advice from his colleagues that a president can only get from those who have sat where he sits.

"You start saddling up camels in every country in the Middle East then you better be prepared to spend the next 50 years sifting through sand because this isn't a quick run on the beach, Jed," Cromwell's character warned him. "This is the new world order."

The writers for The West Wing had a technique of which, as a writer myself, I was envious — in the sense that I wished I had thought of it first. I guess I still am.

The writers used metaphors galore in this episode.

They used a phrase from one of Abraham Lincoln's presidential speeches as the name of the episode — then, as a tie–in, they had the entire cast preparing to go to a performance at Ford's Theater, which is, of course, where Lincoln was assassinated.

Just as the group was preparing to leave the White House, word came that a former president had died, and everyone's plans changed.

Lincoln was a recurring theme in the episode — from its name to the plan to go to Ford's Theater to a final plea from the late president.

Lincoln was there by implication, too, in a side story that was present in which the state of North Carolina was trying to get back a stolen copy of the Bill of Rights. Apparently, a soldier from Connecticut had taken it during the Civil War, and North Carolina wanted it back.

Josh (Bradley Whitford) was the mediator.

After the funeral, Bartlet and the widow spent some time together, and she gave him a letter her husband had left for Bartlet.

In it, he advised Bartlet to "go see Lincoln and listen."

And he did. At the end of the episode, Bartlet could be seen ascending the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

And the story went on in the West Wing universe.