Before a few years ago, the phrase, “Yes We Can” was something contractors and advertising account executives said to clients. There was no hidden meaning, and it didn’t invoke any involuntary emotional resonance. Basically, it was a clumsy way of saying, “Sure.”
We all know what happened next.
I think even the most cynical and disillusioned of us (sadly I feel myself swinging in that direction more each day) have to admit there was some power in Obama’s campaign slogan. Actually, calling it a campaign slogan is too narrow a definition. It signaled that change was coming—change people in this country so desperately wanted—and made people believe the hope they were feeling was the first time they’d felt it in a while. And they didn’t want it to stop. Obama employed one of the oldest advertising tricks in the book: Play to people’s feelings, not their sensible sides, when introducing a problem; then, slide your product over as the solution. At its most rudimentary, it’s black-and-white video of someone pouring hot water all over themselves with the voiceover, “Are you tired of needless difficulty straining your pasta?!” At its most complex, it’s the election of Barack Obama. Stagnation was the problem; government was the solution.
I say all this because Leo wrote “Bartlet For America” on that napkin, not “Bartlet For President.” (Sure, many years later, Toby will be faced with countless “Bartlet For President” signs and furiously cross out the “For” part to replace it with “Is,” but not yet.) Leo’s vision of Bartlet’s potential was greater than an office. It was a vision for a stronger nation, with Bartlet being the man to do it. In my mind, it had nothing to do with the Presidency; it just so happened that running for the job, and winning, was just the way to do it.
I’ve come to view The West Wing as a love letter to optimism, and “Bartlet For America,” both the phrase on the napkin and the episode itself, add to my theory. In this country, we argue over the semantics of health care bills and fear for the rights of newly wed gay couples when they travel to states where people aren’t understanding or liken their lifestyle to that of barbarians. Gone are the days when “Yes We Can” meant something—anything. We’ve moved past the time when we all listened to Obama’s victory speech, silent in front of TVs across the country, wondering what the bright future would hold. This is the real work, and it can really truly suck.
Through the use of flashbacks in “Bartlet For America,” we get to see Bartlet’s own version of the “Yes We Can” days alongside the quagmire that’s developed over his MS concealment. The present-day story finds Leo, on the day before Christmas, heading into the House Of Representatives to be questioned about his involvement in the cover-up. He seems calm, but we find out later that one of the people doing the questioning, a rep named Gibson, has dirt on both Leo and the President’s MS symptoms manifesting themselves early on. We don’t know the extent of the knowledge, only that Josh is working on a secret plan to get Gibson out of the room, and Leo repeatedly tells Josh—and Bartlet—not to do that, to let the chips fall where they may.
The flashbacks come as Leo is being questioned. He’s first asked about the first time he met Bartlet in a let’s-run-for-President capacity, and there’s a nice scene where Leo is a) smiling a ton, b) married, and c) eager to show off his napkin idea to the New Hampshire-ly frustrated Bartlet. (Mrs. Landingham was there, and I have nothing to add other than it’s just really great to see her again.) Then Leo is asked about the early campaign trail, which feels like a forced way to let us see the team back in the day—tossing basketballs and breaking windows like it’s 1999. There’s also a scene between Abby and Bartlet, during which Bartlet decides to do a physical and release the results, since Abby assures him no MS will show up.
This is good time to mention that The West Wing doesn’t lay on any thick morals about this whole situation. There are characters, like Hoynes, who think Bartlet did the worst possible thing a person can do—the sin of omission, basically. There are people like Leo who will go down with the ship defending his actions. There are the Tobys and CJs who shrug their shoulders and try to move past it all. I’ve been reading a lot of articles about Breaking Bad in anticipation of tonight’s (or, yesterday’s, depending on when you read this) season premiere, and the overwhelming consensus is that the show’s the best drama on TV because Walt’s actions aren’t a byproduct of the world he lives in and its values. They’re completely his own, and the show presents his decisions without comment. Based on scenes and facts alone, “Bartlet For America” is the episode that should push us in one direction or the other about what Bartlet did or didn’t do to the American people.
Instead, it gets deeply personal, muddling the morality even more. The episode brilliantly takes us deep into the rabbit hole with Leo McGarry as he recounts the events of the day that, if word got out, could destroy Bartlet and Leo forever. I was certainly enthralled with “Bartlet For America” from the episode’s beginning—treating Leo’s entrance to the House as grandly as they’d treat Bartlet’s delivery of the State Of The Union—but once Leo transported us to that dark smoky hotel room, I was riveted. Sure, at some point Bartlet collapses, calling for Abby with his last ounce of strength; from a plot standpoint, there’s story that needs to be told. But the focus is always on Leo, and the lawyer sitting in the room with him, speaking for the audience, continually asks Leo to take her back to that hotel room. Leo’s fling with alcohol, its escalation to a full-on bender, is so heartwrenching that I forgot what the trial was about. It was all just so painful: The explanation about his alcoholic obsession, his instantaneous opening of the mini bar, the look of defeat on his face when he recounts the words he said to Gibson that night…
This was Leo’s best episode by far. John Spencer expertly and effortlessly jumps between dry comedy (covering the microphone just to annoy the Congressmen was a series highlight), genial flirtation, and temporary madness. And though the episode was called “Bartlet For America,” this was undoubtedly Leo’s episode. It ends with Leo in his office. Bartlet swings by to congratulate him on surviving the day, and hands back the napkin Leo pinned up in Bartlet’s office so many years ago. “Bartlet For America,” it reads, and Leo’s left alone, bawling, for a good 10 seconds before it fades to black. Throughout the episode, Leo has been trapped. He submitted to questioning to expose dark secrets he doesn’t want out. He falls off the wagon, back to a vice that laughs as he tries to live without it, and fails. Mostly, he’s trapped by his conviction that “Bartlet For America” is the only way to live—that it’s unquestionably better to go down with the ship. Because Leo learns throughout the episode that he’s not simply submitting to defeat; he’s going to have to bring others down with him. His words about his alcoholism affect everyone in the administration, everyone in the country.
Leo, like everyone, needs to be told from time to time that everything will be all right. And his crying was pure catharsis. He needed to remember the optimism of the phrase “Bartlet For America” as much as America needed “Bartlet For America”—what it stood and continues to stand for. No matter how bad things get, there will always be members of the majority counsel who look out for the personal interests of the human being they’re questioning. There will always be savvy FBI agents who work tirelessly in seemingly fruitless pursuits, just to make the tiniest of progress. There will always be cute lawyers to go out with on Christmas Eve. “Bartlet For America” defies you to find a problem with anything Bartlet did, because as much as you want to scrutinize every action—as you could surely scrutinize every word in “Bartlet For America” or “Yes We Can”—there’s too much at the heart to ignore.
- Clifford Calley is becoming one of my favorite new characters. Simply put, he’s one of the good guys, no matter what surface-level allegiance he holds. He’s one of the guys who’ll stand up to the system so as not to do something despicable to another human being. How often in real government does someone take a step back? I’d like to think it happens often, but I’m not sure it does.
- Also, nice to see Donna’s got some dating options. That woman’s a gem, I tell you.
- It’ll be interesting to see how the rest of the team deals with Leo’s relapse. It’s only a matter of time at this point before they figure out what Josh was trying to do, and start asking questions.