Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Season 1, Episode 12: "He Shall, From Time to Time..."

Plot summary: The White House staff is in full crisis mode when President Bartlet is found unconscious as he prepares for the State of the Union speech while the India-Pakistan border skirmish flares again when a fearful Pakistan gives its field commanders control of its nuclear arsenal. While the President's condition is officially blamed on the flu, the First Lady knows better, and Toby is too busy to notice as he polishes his boss' upcoming address. Equally distracting is the inevitable disclosure of Leo's former substance-abuse problem by political rivals, as well as the reappearance of the amusing Lord Marbury -- a besotted ladies' man who doubles as a key adviser on the India-Pakistan conflict. Despite the crises, C.J. and Mallory express their romantic feelings about two very different men.

Click here to watch "He Shall, from Time to Time..."

Av --

I've never considered the relationship between alcoholism and multiple sclerosis. In fact, I still don't think they're related. But the symmetry presented in this episode really stands out. Two men, both afflicted with illness. Bartlet - MS; Leo - alcoholism. Both do what it takes to keep their illness under control. Both are aware of the potentially serious outcomes their diseases can cause. Both have been extremely discreet with the information that they're sick in the first place. Even the men themselves are aware of one of the similarities of their experiences: "I tried to get up, but I fell back down again." "I know the feeling." Yet the question I keep coming back to when considering the two men and their respective illnesses is a pragmatic one: which of the two conditions makes it harder for the afflicted individual to fulfill the duties his position requires? Though for a few episodes now Leo seemed to be the focal point of that question, having to come up with answers for the media (and his political rivals) defending his ability to do his job as a recovering addict, the torch now appears to be on its way to Bartlet. As the Leo story breaks to the public and thus ends his time in the spotlight, Bartlet is forced to admit his ailment to someone outside of his wife for the first time. Should he need to go public, I'm sure Sam will write quite a statement of support, whether the president likes it or not.

Giving a main character - the president, no less - multiple sclerosis is a bold move, one you'd think was carefully thought out as the character was being written. Typically, Sorkin did no such thing - he had this idea of Bartlet sick in bed watching soap operas, plus he wanted to reveal that Abbey Bartlet was a doctor - Jed's doctor - without the "reveal" being cheesy. He needed a sickness. Enter multiple sclerosis, a revelation which shocked me as a viewer (I believe that's the first time watching this show I actually yelled out "Oh my god!"), and left me with so many questions. Some of them have been answered. For example, I thought MS was by definition degenerative and causes early death; this episode educated me about other forms of the disease. More important questions: who knew about it? Apparently his wife, and since she's a doctor, they've kept it under wraps. Why didn't he tell anyone? The obvious answer, as Bartlet says, "I wanted to be the president." But the bigger questions - how did they keep it a secret? Aren't there presidential physicals? And now that Leo knows, will others find out? What will happen then? What if the media gets wind of this? Obviously we haven't seen the last of this story, and I'm truly fascinated to see where it will go.

As far as the other storyline, that little thing called the State of the Union address, I was once again pleased with the "here's what happens leading up to the speech" route, also used in "A Proportional Response." It's especially interesting after witnessing a real-life inaugural address that is the subject of just as much preparation and scrutiny. (And in case you were wondering, Robert Gates was "the guy" chosen not to be there in case of catastrophe.) Though I had always imagined the team of speechwriters going through draft after draft of the speech, I never considered something like the president's party allies in Congress having their opinions considered. (In this particular case, interestingly enough, the debate between the Congressmen and Toby centers around NEA funding, which has become a real-life point of contention lately.) All the preparation and the analysis of every word shows just how important the State of the Union is for a president - it can serve as an agenda-setter, a rallying cry, and a message to the people.

-- Binny



The remarkable thing about this episode (and it's an aspect that applies to the structure of the series in general) is that Sorkin was able to write an episode that in title and in substance is principally about the State of the Union address without showing even a second of the actual speech. If I was writing this show, it would have been obvious to me that when we get to the State of the Union episode, of course we show the speech. But that would be the easy way out, a way to fill up time without doing any real storytelling or challenging writing. Alas, Aaron Sorkin is a better writer than I am.

I had the opportunity to read a little bit about the history of the State of the Union and discovered that from 1801-1913 (Presidents Jefferson through Wilson) the State of the Union was not delivered as an address to a joint session of Congress. Rather, it was merely written up and delivered in print to Congress. This method was used as recently as 1981, by Jimmy Carter. I was extremely surprised to learn this, but even more surprised that former President George W. Bush didn't opt to send Congress a postcard with a funny cartoon on it in lieu of one of his addresses.

The discussion of the inclusion of the "era of big government is over" line in the speech was interesting to me for a number of reasons. First, the line came directly from Bill Clinton's 1996 State of the Union (as opposed to the full paragraph we see Bartlet rehearsing in the episode's 1st scene, which was lifted word for word from Clinton's 1999 address
.) Second, by discussing the merits of including 6 words in a speech, they were able to frame the debate that underlies many of the fundamental political differences between liberals and conservatives. (Toby's defense of big government sounds fantastic in theory, but has proven difficult to accomplish in practice.) That they were able to do so briefly and subtly without hitting us over the head with it makes it all the more impressive. Finally - and this was something that only occurred to me this morning after I watched this episode for what had to be at least the 10th time - the discussion between Toby and the president gives us a very different version of the substance and message of the Bartlet campaign than that which we were given previously. A few episodes ago, the outgoing Supreme Court justice accuses Bartlet of selling out, claiming that he ran "great guns" in what must have been a decidedly left-wing campaign and then moved quickly to the middle of the road after taking office. Here, Toby makes it sound like they positioned Bartlet as a centrist in the campaign with talk like "the era of big government is over" but that now that they're in office, Bartlet should be returning to his progressive ideals. I wonder if this is more a matter of different perspectives than a pure plot inconsistency, but either way, I found this interesting.

As for the MS, the first time I saw this episode, I was just as surprised as you were when the First Lady revealed to Leo the real nature of the President's illness. At the time, I knew very little about multiple sclerosis and even now, I would say that 95% of the knowledge I have was acquired through watching The West Wing. The show deserves all the praise and recognition it has received for educating the public about this terrible disease.

I enjoyed the role of the Internet in the breaking the news about Leo (hattip Etan on this.) Back then, the story being on the Internet meant that it would get picked up and break the next day in "real" news coverage. Today, if a story is on the Internet, "it's already been broken
." Taking this point a step further, I wonder how long either of these 2 secrets - Bartlet's MS and Leo's drug addiction - could have been kept close to the vest for as long as they were in today's day and age of blogs and 24-hour cable news. It's only been 10 years, but the way the media works has changed dramatically during that time.

Finally, I find it extremely unlikely that the president wouldn't have told Leo about his MS at some point, if not during the campaign, then at the very least at some later point, if for no other reason than the person who spends the most time around him on a daily basis would know what he's dealing with if something were to happen. I find it even more unlikely that Leo never would have pressed either the president or first lady on this issue in the past, given that he has seen stuff like this before and was already suspicious that something was going on that he didn't know about. Still, I am willing to look past all of that because the tension that results from Leo being kept in the dark is what makes the episode's final scene as touching as it is,and sometimes good TV is better than realistic TV.

-- Av


Av --

Though it's a route too-often explored in the annals of WW analysis, and one I'm trying hard to avoid in my own, the Bartlet/Clinton parallels would be much better avoided by Sorkin (which, I've read, he desperately wanted to avoid), if he didn't, you know, actually lift sections of a real State of the Union. In any case, the point you made about the positions of Candidate Bartlet vs. those of President Bartlet is an interesting one, especially as I watch the dawn of a new real-world American president with more awareness and understanding of politics than I ever had at similar moments. As far as the inconsistency between the way outgoing Justice Crouch sees this change in Bartlet and the way Toby does (great catch, by the way), it wouldn't surprise me if Crouch represents the consensus among the Democratic base, but of course Toby, in the heart of Team Bartlet, feels that they were making concessions the whole campaign to the point that Bartlet was more centrist than liberal by Election Day.

The other real-world corollary you noted that wouldn't fly ten years later (and one we keep coming back to, for obvious reasons) is the notion of Internet news-breaks and the ability (or lack thereof) to keep things quiet. While the former isn't a major sticking point (if the episode was written now they'd just say the story is broken and have Leo address the media a day earlier), the latter issue makes this episode a tad dated. While many of the political issues I've seen so far have great relevance today, the drama of keeping a hot political secret off the media's radar is not one of them. On the other hand, for every issue that today's media exposes, there could be 100 more that are somehow kept quiet.

-- Binny

1 comment:

  1. Av, your point about them not showing the speech is one that leads back to Sorkin's (apparent) original idea - where the President would go either un- or rarely seen. A decision fortunately abandoned when they hooked Sheen for the role.

    (FYI: Wilson's decision to take his case directly to Congress [every time he had a case to make, not just SsotU], made a huge impact on his administration - and all those to follow [eg, FDR's declaration of war on Japan, and W's non-SotU, post-9/11 speech].)