Monday, March 30, 2015

When Things Fall Apart

Leo (John Spencer): You can't take it personally.

President Bartlet (Martin Sheen): That's what I keep telling myself. Problem is, once you're telling yourself that, it's too damned late. You're already taking it personally.

On this night in 2005, the West Wing gave its viewers a taste of what they could expect in a few years — the nomination by a major party of a presidential candidate from a minority demographic. They weren't on the verge of nominating a black candidate, but they were on the verge of nominating a Latino candidate (Jimmy Smits).

(Apparently, even in 2005, a year after Barack Obama's keynote address to the 2004 Democratic convention and three years before Obama emerged from virtual obscurity to win the nomination, the writers for West Wing, as liberal as they were, simply couldn't imagine a plausible scenario in which a black candidate won the nomination.)

Clearly, it wasn't entirely prophetic. In the West Wing universe, the nomination wasn't a slam dunk. In fact, the battle for the nomination between the vice president (Gary Cole), who was the front–runner, and the Latino congressman from Texas (Jimmy Smits) was a virtual stalemate, and the episode began with a deal offer. The vice president was willing to name the congressman as his choice for the vice–presidential nomination in exchange for releasing his delegates from their commitments to support him.

I always felt it was a realistic depiction of the kind of political convention wheeling and dealing that was normal in American political parties until about midway through the 20th century. It has almost never been that close by the time that a real convention was about to begin, though. Something always seems to happen, and someone always surges at the last minute — and, in spite of occasions when observers have speculated about the chances for another "brokered" convention to occur, it really hasn't come close to happening in nearly 40 years.

So, in that sense, I suppose the episode was neither realistic nor prophetic. Just dramatic.

Adding to the drama were two facts — the Republicans were holding their own nominating convention (just as in real life, the out–of–power party was holding its convention first), and the crew of the space station was dealing with a life–threatening oxygen leak. The president (Martin Sheen) was trying to resolve the latter while ignoring the former.

That was hardly a new position in which he found himself. The unpredictability of the world often forces a president to deal with matters that stray far from his comfort zone, and the West Wing certainly was faithful in presenting that aspect of the job. The character of Jed Bartlet had expertise in economics, but he had to deal with all kinds of crises in the seven seasons the series was on the air.

And, with all that on the president's mind, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee was imploring him to intervene in the party squabbles between the leading candidates in the race to succeed Bartlet as the party's standard bearer.

The president wasn't too keen on that so he turned it over to Leo (John Spencer), his chief of staff, who really wasn't able to make much headway.

Then the congressman decided to meet with the vice president to discuss his proposal — but, when it came down to it, he just couldn't agree to be the running mate.

Meanwhile, the Republican nominee (Alan Alda) was seen giving his acceptance speech — and the president and Leo were seen watching the speech on TV. He made some complimentary remarks about the president, prompting Leo to look at the president and observe, "Nice what he said about you."

"Yeah. Bastard," the president replied. "He just picked up five million Democratic votes."

OK, it was fiction. Few observers of the real political atmosphere in America expect next year's Republican nominee to say much, if anything, nice about Barack Obama — any more than Obama had anything nice to say about George W. Bush in 2008 or than Bush had to say about Bill Clinton in 2000. In fact, I can't recall a time in my life when the nominee of the opposing party had anything nice to say about the incumbent. (That has probably been influenced by the fact that most of the time the nominee of the opposing party has been running against the incumbent, not his successor as party standard bearer.)

But the Republican nominee in this case was much more centrist than anyone who is likely to be nominated by the Republicans next year. He also hailed from California, even though California hasn't had a potential national nominee in more than a quarter of a century and hasn't voted for a Republican presidential candidate in nearly as long — but, in this scenario, he was a beloved senator from California, and that turned the Electoral College math inside out — as did the fact that one of the leading candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination was from Texas.

Things were set for a dramatic season finale a week later.