Monday, January 26, 2015

Revelations While Taking Out the Trash

Fifteen years ago tonight, The West Wing took an interesting approach to the subject of hate crimes — which, as I recall, was only emerging as a social issue at the time. Another instance of The West Wing being ahead of the curve.

It also examined the practice of dumping a bunch of unappealing stories (from the White House's point of view) on the press on Friday afternoon. The timing is purely political. As Josh (Bradley Whitford) observed, "No one reads the paper on Saturday." One such story, apparently, was to be the signing of a hate crimes bill that had been inspired by the murder of a gay teen whose parents would be in attendance. C.J. the press secretary (Allison Janney) was warned that the parents might be a problem — the father, really. The mother seemed to be on board with the law, but the father was said to be uncommunicative. C.J. concluded that he was grieving for his son — until it was suggested to her that he might be embarrassed by the knowledge that his son was a homosexual.

If I hadn't been a teacher — and had to answer similar questions — I would have found it hard to believe that C.J. had the following exchange with White House reporter Danny (Timothy Busfield). But I had a conversation with one of my college students several years ago who was genuinely surprised to learn that many religious leaders — of all faiths — had so little tolerance for those who did not share their views.

C.J.: "Is it possible that a father could be embarrassed about his son being gay even after his son was murdered?"

Danny: "Yes."

C.J.: "Possible to the extent that he would be disinclined to support a law that would impose stiffer penalties on the perpetrators of hate crimes, including the ones who tied his 17–year–old son to a tree and threw rocks at his head?"

Danny: "Yes."

C.J.: "It eludes me."

Danny: "I know."

So C.J. met with the parents and tried to confront the issue — and she and the viewing audience were stunned to learn that they had misunderstood the father's response. He was angry that the government and, in particular, the president hadn't done enough for gay rights.

The West Wing was good at that — throwing you a high hanging curve like that when you were looking for a fastball.

There was also an amusing side story about a report on sex education and sexual behavior among young people and a proposed program that encouraged abstinence among young people. A more liberal slant was given the program by renaming it "Abstinence Plus," which apparently encouraged everything except activity that could lead to the conception of a baby. Sam (Rob Lowe) was said to have nicknamed it "Everything But."

There were always several stories going on in an episode of The West Wing, especially in that first season when it was building a devoted audience base; eventually, though, they were all shown to be relevant to each other.

An ongoing topic in the series in that first year was the revelation that the president's chief of staff (John Spencer) was a recovering alcoholic and drug abuser. The information had been leaked to leaders of the Republican Congress.

Turned out that a young intern had been the source of the leaked information, and Sam had her fired.

But Leo (Spencer) asked for her to be brought to his office before she left. He wanted to talk to her, to get to know her, to find out why she had leaked the information. When they were done, Leo gave her back her job — another interesting twist that probably wouldn't happen in a modern White House. I'm not so sure it would have happened then, either, but it is nice to think that there was a time in our history when people of principle still held positions of power in America.