Monday, February 06, 2017

Sleepless in the White House

"I don't remember having to explain to Italians that our problem wasn't with them but with Mussolini. Why does the U.S. have to take every Arab country out for an ice cream cone? They'll like us when we win."

Toby (Richard Schiff)

Regular viewers of the West Wing must have recognized Adam Arkin's character when he appeared in the opening scene of the episode that first aired on this night in 2002, "Night Five." He was the psychiatrist who treated Josh (Bradley Whitford) for his post–traumatic stress disorder brought about by the assassination attempt that was the cliffhanger conclusion of Season 1.

Arkin (and the audience) assumed he had been summoned to the White House to help Josh through a personal crisis. But, as he was led around the White House, it dawned on him that there was more to it than that. A lot more.

He wasn't there to see Josh. He was there to see the president (Martin Sheen).

The president was having trouble sleeping. He hadn't slept in four nights. Arkin's character wasn't a specialist in sleep disorders, but the president knew he had helped Josh, and the president was dealing with some ticklish matters at the time — the recent disclosure of his multiple sclerosis and his re–election campaign were foremost among them — so he had decided to consult the psychiatrist. He believed Arkin's character could be counted upon to be discreet.

They went through potential factors — physical, environment, lifestyle — and eliminated everything but psychological factors.

While they were zeroing in on the source of the problem, there were other issues going on. C.J. (Allison Janney) was trying to find a reporter who had gone missing and was feared dead in the Congo. Toby the speech writer (Richard Schiff) was facing brushback over a speech he had written that the president was to deliver at the U.N. One of Toby's harshest critics was his ex–wife, a liberal congresswoman, over the phrase "Islamic fanaticism."

In other words, an average chaos–filled week at the West Wing.

In their conversation, the president and Arkin got closer to identifying the root of the president's sleeping issues. Turned out that he had unresolved issues with his father. It had been a tumultuous relationship and some issues had been stirred up by the president's conversation with Toby on the night of the Iowa caucuses.

Toby had told him that he was still seeking the approval of his father, who was long dead and had been abusive to his son in life.

Arkin wrapped up the session and assured the president that he was ready to help in any way he could — but it was clear that more sessions would be needed.

In the seasons ahead, there would be other occasions to explore the president's relationship with his father — which I always felt produced some of the series' most impressive and insightful exchanges — but that was due to existing conditions with which viewers were aware. There were some times, though, when the West Wing seemed to be prescient, exploring issues that weren't issues when the episodes were filmed. The West Wing has been off the air for more than a decade, and some of those issues have emerged.

It is time to give credit where credit is due.

This episode, for example, mentioned Islamic fanaticism, which is a red–flag phrase for some folks today, but 15 years ago, with the 9–11 attacks still fresh in everyone's minds, I don't think it received nearly the same response.

Perhaps the story of Sam (Rob Lowe), White House counsel Ainsley Hayes (Emily Procter) and a temp in the West Wing would have. When Ainsley came in one night in a gown she had worn to a Washington party, Sam remarked that she could "make a good dog break his leash." The temp took offense and told Sam so. Sam spent the rest of the episode trying to prove that he was not a sexist; I don't recall a reaction to the dialogue, but it was designed to make people think. I know it made me think.

Sexism, though, has been an issue in this country for decades while Islamic fanaticism is something of a newcomer to the debate.