Sunday, April 26, 2015

Letting Bartlet Be Bartlet

Mrs. Landingham (Kathryn Joosten): You don't get enough roughage.

Bartlet (Martin Sheen): I know I'd like to beat you senseless with a head of cabbage. I know that for damn sure.

Mrs. Landingham: Once again, you display an immaturity about vegetables that I think is not at all presidential.

I cannot honestly say that I know who said, "Let Reagan be Reagan," or what the circumstances were when it was said. I want to say that it was said when he was trying get Robert Bork on the Supreme Court — but I really don't know that for certain.

Perhaps it originated even earlier.

Whenever it was said, it was almost certainly said by one of Ronald Reagan's advisers at a time when Reagan's supporters were under the impression (whether rightly or wrongly) that he was being stymied by some people, and they wanted him to be free to say what he really believed.

It was a rallying cry that I heard from time to time during Reagan's presidency in the 1980s; in the intervening years, it has become something of a cliche, suggesting that a chief executive — a governor or a president — needs to be more assertive and proactive in his advocacy of (or opposition to) something or someone. Anyway, it was a pretty good inspiration for an episode of the West Wing that first aired 15 years ago tonight.

The overall theme of the story was the White House wasn't accomplishing much, and the West Wing staff was drifting into a malaise, just sort of spinning its wheels. At one point, Josh (Bradley Whitford) observed to Toby (Richard Schiff), "Our second year doesn't seem to be going a whole lot better than our first, does it?"

"No," Toby replied.

That really summed things up.

The episode began disarmingly with the president about to speak before an organization of trout fishermen, and speech writers Toby and Sam (Rob Lowe) discussing whether to change a reference to a "magnificent vista" that the president was supposed to be seeing at an outdoor event — because of what appeared to be an increasing chance of rain that might force the event indoors.

As it turned out, it did rain, and the event was moved indoors — but, after all their talk, neither Toby nor Sam changed the reference, and the president said it, anyway.

That was one side story. There were always side stories in West Wing episodes. Sometimes you really had to be on your toes to figure out their relevance to the overall theme before that relevance was revealed to the audience. In the interim, though, there was always snappy dialogue, like the exchange between Josh and his secretary Donna (Janel Moloney) after Josh had been informed by House Republicans that, if the president nominated the people he was likely to nominate for two openings on the Federal Election Commission, not only would they reject the nominees but they would send all sorts of pet bills to the president's desk, bills that he was sure not to like ... starting with one making English the official language of the United States.

"Are we for it or against it?" Donna asked.

"Donna ..." Josh began.

"I mean, we're not in favor of making another language the official language, are we?" she asked. "Like Dutch or something?"

There was also a side story about gays in military — a topic which may seem a little dated now but was straight from the headlines in the morning paper in April 2000. The White House and the military representatives who were assigned to come to some sort of agreement were at an impasse when Admiral Fitzwallace (John Amos) dropped by.

Fitzwallace asked the military reps what they thought about gays in the military, then proceeded to answer for them — or at least finish their answers for them. One said, "We're not prejudiced toward homosexuals."

"You just don't want to see them serving in the armed forces," Fitz said.

"No, sir, I don't," the military rep said.

"Because they pose a threat to unit discipline and cohesion."

"Yes, sir,"
the other rep said.

"That's what I think, too," the admiral said. "I also think the military wasn't designed to be an instrument of social change."

"Yes, sir,"
the first rep said.

"Problem with that," the admiral observed, "is that's what they were saying about me 50 years ago. Blacks shouldn't serve with whites. It would disrupt the unit. You know what? It did disrupt the unit. The unit got over it. The unit changed. I'm an admiral in the U.S. Navy and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Beat that with a stick."

But the main story had to do with media consultant Mandy (Moira Kelly), who had written a memo concerning the weaknesses and vulnerabilities of the president and the White House staff when she worked for one of the president's party rivals. The memo had been leaked after she went to work for the White House; she had no idea who had it, only that it was out there somewhere.

C.J. (Allison Janney) tried to find out who had the memo — and discovered that White House reporter Danny (Timothy Busfield) had it and was planning to write about it. It was clear early in the series that Danny had feelings for C.J., and I would venture to say that most West Wing viewers knew that C.J. harbored a simmering attraction to Danny beneath the surface.

But I really admired the writers on this episode. Danny and C.J. had a frank conversation about the relationship between the White House and the reporters who cover it, about what news is and is not — and, as a journalist, I appreciated it and found a lot in it that was true. It probably would have been easy for the writers to allow Danny to compromise his principles in order to curry favor with C.J. — and I have no doubt there are journalists who would do that.

Instead, both Danny and C.J. responded the way I would hope people in such a position would respond. Neither backed down, and both left the conversation with some grudging respect for the other.

The whole thing reached critical mass in the last scene, a showdown between the president and his chief of staff, Leo (John Spencer) that re–defined the objectives of the fictional Bartlet administration.

"We're going to change the level of public debate in this country," Leo told the staffers. "And let that be our legacy."

And the stage was set for the first of the West Wing's incomparable season finales.