Monday, January 16, 2017

Reaching for the Stars

"In 1940 our armed forces weren't among the 12 most formidable in the world, but obviously we were going to fight a big war. And Roosevelt said the U.S. would produce 50,000 planes in the next four years. Everyone thought it was a joke — and it was 'cause we produced 100,000 planes. Gave our armed forces an armada that would block out the sun."

Sam (Rob Lowe)

I always enjoyed the West Wing, in large part because it usually managed to educate as it entertained, especially in its first three or four seasons. People who watched the West Wing regularly — in the third season, during which "100,000 Airplanes" premiered on this night in 2002, the show ranked #10 — were frequently exposed to things that most people don't know.

Often that knowledge focused on American history, how things are done and why they are done that way, but the information didn't come exclusively from history or politics. For example, when the time came for the president (Martin Sheen) to acknowledge that he had multiple sclerosis, many viewers learned things about that medical condition that they did not know.

But on this night in 2002, "100,000 Airplanes" stayed on topic, you might say. It gave viewers some insight into the annual rite of creating the president's state of the union address — with a dollop of history on top.

Basically the episode took place on the night of the president's state of the union address, framed by his recent congressional censure for his handling of his medical condition and his upcoming campaign for re–election. The viewers watched Sam (Rob Lowe), one of the president's speechwriters, as he observed what was happening and reflected on the process of creating the speech for a Vanity Fair reporter who had been assigned to cover him that night. The reporter (Traylor Howard) happened to be a young woman with whom Sam had once been engaged.

To say it was an awkward evening at times is being charitable.

But it gave Sam the chance to talk about a tidbit from the original speech that didn't make the cut — a call to cure cancer within 10 years. The president seemed sincere in his desire to challenge his fellow Americans to commit themselves to that goal — but the West Wing staff almost unanimously believed that it was an attempt to deflect attention from the president's problems and would be perceived that way by the voters.

All except Sam. He told the president that he thought it was a good idea for several reasons, among them that government "should be optimistic," that it should be about more than entitlement checks and budgets.

And that is a worthy concept — that government's priority should be to serve the people, not itself. If you look at the 2016 election results, from the presidential race on down, I think you will see that the majority of Americans agree.

But ultimately the idea was scrapped because the administration couldn't provide a realistic monetary figure that would be necessary to fund such an endeavor. In fact, they really couldn't answer many questions at all.

Oh, that dollop of history I mentioned earlier was the comment Sam made about FDR that you can find at the top of this post.

An example of executive overreach that paid off.