Saturday, May 07, 2016

An Administrative Change of Life

On this night 10 years ago, the West Wing was winding down its seven–year run. A new president was about to take over, and Martin Sheen's crew was making post–administration plans, both personal and professional.

I was in the midst of my own transition, as most West Wing fans were, I suppose. I was wondering what I would do with myself after the series went off the air. What I saw on this night in 2006 made me wish there was going to be another season so I could see what happened with those characters after they finished what C.J. Cregg (Allison Janney) called "the first line of my obituary."

We sort of got a peek into that in the final episode — but I will write about that next Saturday on the 10th anniversary of the West Wing's series finale.

The viewers were getting set up for that with the episode that aired 10 years ago tonight, "Institutional Memory." As I say, everyone in Martin Sheen's administration was preparing to vacate for Jimmy Smits' incoming administration.

But not entirely. Some folks from the Bartlet (Sheen) administration were being asked to stay on — chief among them being C.J., who started the series as press secretary and ended it as chief of staff. Now the Santos (Smits) administration wanted to make use of her experience.

The trouble was so did a wealthy mogul — a Steve Jobs or Bill Gates sort of character — who wanted to use his wealth to benefit people and offered to give C.J. $10 billion to "fix" whatever she thought was the greatest problem of her time.

That was the offer that appealed to her, but Smits had given her the "your president needs you" speech — OK, it was a Reader's Digest condensed version, but that took away none of its impact — especially on the relationship between C.J. and Danny the reporter (Timothy Busfield), whose intriguing interaction through the run of the series was finally beginning to blossom in the final episodes.

Understandably, though, C.J. was conflicted by her professional life, and Danny had to make her understand that he would be supportive of whatever she wanted to do. He just wanted to be part of the conversation.

Of course, as a presidential administration winds down, there are many conversations going on, not the least of which concerns the subject of presidential pardons.

Being the history buff that I am, one of the things I always liked about the West Wing was the way it educated its viewers while entertaining them. Sometimes the education was rather blunt, but it was subtle in this episode of the West Wing. Outgoing presidents routinely issue pardons, and the subject of a pardon for former White House speechwriter Toby (Richard Schiff), who was fired after he leaked classified information to save the lives of some astronauts, was the subject of conversation. Toby's ex–wife Andie (Kathleen York) was one of those who lobbied C.J. for a pardon.

When he discussed the subject of pardons with C.J. — and after confirming that Toby's name did not appear on the list of applicants for presidential pardons — Charlie (Dule Hill) casually remarked that the president "could do whatever he wants to in this area," including adding his own names to the list of pardons.

Sometimes in our modern political climate it is hard to remember just how prescient the West Wing often was. Toby's national defense leak was only one example. More than one writer has observed how closely the election that put Barack Obama in the White House mirrored the election of Jed Bartlet's successor in the series' final season.

C.J. went to visit Toby, who confirmed in a rather awkward exchange that he had not applied for a pardon, and then they had the kind of conversation that flows easily between friends — and, as Andie pointed out to C.J., they had been friends for a long time, long before the leak.

C.J. and Danny were friends before they were lovers. The challenge they faced in the episode that aired a decade ago tonight suggested, as the final credits began to roll, that they taking tentative steps toward being a mutually supportive couple.

Maybe one day the West Wing will have a reunion show, and we can find out more about what became of those characters after the next week's season finale.