I take the State Of The Union address for granted. It’s such a weird little tradition held over from another era. Once a year, the President addresses Congress, and does so specifically inside Congress. It’s a big deal, this figure from the executive branch breaching the innermost chamber of the legislative one. With this pesky 24-hour news cycle we’ve got nowadays, I forget that the President and Congress probably don’t talk all that casually. Like, they probably don’t hang out in the shared government cafeteria, kibitzing while they load up their plates for taco day. So once a year, the President rolls across town and drops some knowledge all up in that beast. It’s more than the words that are spoken—he can do that from the confines of the Oval Office and stream it on Hulu; it’s a gesture of inclusiveness rooted in the days of the Founding Fathers. (I never thought I’d drop those two words in, well, anything I’d ever write not for the Fox News blog, to which I’m a regular contributor if by regular you mean irregular aka not at all.) How’d they know it’d still be in effect come 2010?
Fittingly, “Bartlet’s Third State Of The Union” and “The War At Home” (also the name of MY FAVORITE SHOW OF ALL TIME) take the opportunity to reflect on where The West Wing is now, both on the grand scale and the level of excruciating minutia. And, as always, nothing encapsulates the spirit of the episode quite like one of the opening scenes. President enters the hall, entourage in tow. Toby is going over last-minute changes to the speech he’s worked on for three months, having just passed a secret note to CJ that “we’ve got the green light on blue ribbon—she’ll know what that means.” Then, with less than three minutes to go before speech time, the President stops in the hall to tie his shoe. Leo looks on, shrugging to everyone else. “This is how it goes,” his look says. Even in the most frantic moments, the President—our Bartlet—requires pause. A moment later, from the other side of the door, we hear, “Mr. Speaker: The President of the United States,” yet we don’t see the hundreds of folks waiting, rising from their seats, in that cavernous room. We only see the look on Bartlet’s face as the opening credits swell. This is America’s pause.
Then, immediately, the speech is over. The West Wing rarely focuses on those Presidential moments we’re all familiar with. My old roommate used to watch The West Wing all the time, and even though this is really my first formal trip through its hallowed halls, I do remember, though I was only half paying attention, a live election debate in one of the show’s later seasons. That’s all well and good, but I prefer to see what’s fallen through the cracks. I have zero expectations for what comes before and after the lumbering, heavily publicized governmental pageantry, thus The West Wing can have as much fun as possible without me getting hung up on how they got something not quite right. Ever seen the movie Funny People? Didn’t it bother you how none of the stand-up comedy in that movie was funny? Maybe it was just me. All this is a really long way to say: They didn’t show the speech itself, and that was a-ok by me.
Given that the episodes were centered on one of the most celebratory nights of the President’s term, it surprised me how they broke form and ended on such a dim note pretty much across the board. In one case, that’s meant literally, as Josh is unable to snag the polling data he so desperately wants because power goes out in the call center. It’s not so much that he won’t know how the President fared for a few more hours, it’s that he’d been asking about that data for hours. The State Of The Union has gotten him all wound up; he’s convinced himself this is the speech that’s going to make or break Bartlet’s career. People deal with stress in different ways—I prefer to stand quietly in a corner as every disastrous scenario plays itself out in my head. It seems Josh just bothers people until he gets what he wants. Nice of The West Wing to not only show the characters at their passively weakest moments, but these active ones too.
This season has featured a recurring “us vs. them” theme, with the administration facing threats from visitors, foreign countries, Republicans, and sometimes their own party. Just never anyone in the central circle of Toby, Sam, CJ, Leo, and Bartlet (or Donna). That crew is tight. So I found it fascinating, then, that Abbey Bartlet is out of the inner circle, even though arguably she was the only one truly “in” before. After all, she knows Bartlet’s deepest secret that few others do (including that one doctor). So there she is, watching Bartlet deliver his speech, and she can’t help but notice that he’s not taking as firm a stance on entitlement programs as he was originally going to. Apparently, stances are for people on their way out. So it’s in the tiniest choice of phrasing that she develops this nagging suspicion that something isn’t right, that she’s out of the loop. Her way of dealing with the stress, it seems, is to speak to Toby and others about that part of the speech, not asking the question she really wants to ask but instead asking every other conceivable question under the sun about the five or so words in question. Then she finally sees Bartlet, unleashing hell because he decided to run for another term without telling her, and sulks off into the corner, the first of two episodes ending.
Like I mentioned before, it’s rare for an episode not to end with a profound phrase of hope and a groundswell of optimism. The West Wing has been known to stick the landing every time. But this one leaves me with a bunch of questions. Bartlet tries at first to play dumb about this change of events, at least it seems that way. I wonder if he was truly naïve to the intentions of that speech, as the change came through at the last minute. Did he know or not? Did Toby and Leo slip it in at the last minute hoping Bartlet wouldn’t notice and before it was too late, he’d be up and running for the next term?
When Leo and Toby shook hands a few episodes ago, vowing to get that man another four years, part of my heart sank. As they say in this latest episode, a President gets a good 18 months to govern, then has to start focusing on reelection. In those 18 months, you get, what, one major policy max? I think even the most optimistic Obama supporters are now realizing that swift change just doesn’t happen in Washington DC. Ever. Unless, I suppose, you have nothing to lose, and in the real world that only seems to happen in the last few months of a President’s final term. Bartlet was supposed to be different. He’s fictional, of course, but he’s still a fantasy—the embodiment of political optimism. Yet here he was, playing politics as others cited Bartlet as being a great public speaker—a skill not unlike juggling. That’s some sad, Obama-paralleling reality soaking into my West Wing, and it played to my deepest fear about politics: Accomplishing nothing.
I wondered how self-aware Bartlet was about his team vying for another term, and I wondered again about that self-awareness in how Bartlet dealt with the Colombia situation. Perhaps he also deeply understands how politics paralyzes perfectly good men and women into inactivity. So when some Colombian criminals capture undercover DEA agents and demand the release of a prominent drug lord in exchange, the President allows the Colombian president to covertly let the guy out and save some American lives. It’s not to say the President didn’t weigh the decision heavily, but perhaps he realized that in order to truly “do” anything as President, you have to do it with little fanfare and so pretty much no one knows you did anything. He might have to play a few chess matches against himself in the bitter cold to be alright putting himself in that uncomfortably secret position, but he does.
Meanwhile, over on Capitol Beat, the weirdly misogynist host is having politicians cycle in and out to give their sound bites about the speech. For hours and hours. The show itself is probably three times as long as the speech was. As important as the speech was, and continues to be, it will never be taken at face value. We are a nation that can’t help but read between the lines.
- I'm aware that photo has nothing to do with the State Of The Union, but it does mark the first time I found myself liking Ainsley Hayes. She's proven herself to be a walking talking point that the administration—okay, Sam—has a soft spot for. (Oh, what the President suggested about school uniforms might not be constitutional? Tee hee.) But drinking a fruity something and dancing the bossa nova around in a robe? Okay, that's kind of adorable; even more so is her reaction to seeing the President stand on and watch her like that. Later she's so nervous that she walks into a closet looking for the bathroom, then continues to wallow in her mistake and hide when the President himself enters. She and Sam are the slapstick ones, let's get them working on a bit together.
- Also, finally! Josh knows Donna likes him. Or, rather, he probably already knew but Joey Lucas, who brings some much-needed calm to the polling room, is sick of subtlety and just tells him. It's one of the only moments he smiles in both episodes, and now I'm dying for the two to get together.
- Speaking of: "Why do you ask me the question when you're going to have the conversation all by yourself?
- "I'm concerned I'm going to pee on your carpet." "Okay, now I am too."
- The administration is in such a tizzy over this Colombia thing, even Charlie wanders around nervous he should be doing something but not sure what he's supposed to actually do.
- "Is anyone chewing gum? Okay, start." Joey Lucas always knows just what to say.
- The President balances his checkbook to relax? That man has issues.
- Another adorable Ainsley quote: "It's a really big night for me!"
- "Those 14 people keep bigger secrets than this."