The first time I saw this episode the entire lead-in of State of the Union prep, Josh Lyman and CJ Cregg observing that the President looked clammy and drawn, and the spectacular Oval Office collapse seemed designed to draw attention to the brutal schedule a president keeps. I would not have guessed that writer Aaron Sorkin would drop the bombshell of multiple sclerosis, relapsing remitting or not.
It was an incredible risk. Would this not oblige him to kill off one of the most magnetic figures in the series? And it wasn’t handled all that well. President Bartlet’s jocularity was misplaced, and what should have been a gripping scene when he apologises for keeping his illness a secret from Leo McGarry was an extraordinary lapse in acting from Martin Sheen; the almost blubbering sentimentalism just did not fit.
As with all other Sorkin blunders, his otherwise routinely good scripting, and probably the teamwork between various directors and actors, saved the moment. Stockard Channing as the first lady and the President’s doctor worked better than I could have imagined, as did her confession to McGarry.
The scenes in which McGarry angrily denounced Sam Seaborn and Josh Lyman for defending him in the hour of his outing as a recovering alcoholic and Valium addict worked better as demonstrations of camaraderie and sincere friendship than scenes in which he could have gratefully accepted that support.
The first time I watched the episode all this left me thinking the episode was light on, but I was nevertheless left with an impression of a tight-knit family who loved each other.
That feeling of family was one of the greatest assets, though I have to confess I am less tolerant of the episode’s faults today than I was back in late 2007, when I first cycled through the seven seasons of The West Wing.
It was an odd time of altered consciousness for me. I was recuperating from the first of two courses of chemotherapy and radiation treatment. I was emaciated and clearly affected mentally by own slim connection to existence. Add to that some pretty potent psychoactive drugs, and I found myself in a half-delusional state, sometimes unsure whether some event or conversation had been something I dreamt in my terrible nightmares of the time, something I had hallucinated, or something that had really taken place. This gave me an odd perspective on the West Wing, with which I whiled away many hours of recovery time.
Seeing the episode again this time around made me think Sheen’s performance was sub-par, and saved only by his later portrayals as a serious man handling personal circumstances.
Possibly worse than Sheen’s performance was the scripting of romantic developments for Cregg and Seaborn, both of which made me wonder how such competent people could possibly be believed to become juvenile fools when it came to relationships.
Against those negatives, the brief reappearance of Lord John Marbury to advise buying off India with support for building its IT industry was inspired. It could have been better only if the show had tackled the almost treasonous actions of American corporations in outsourcing lower-level IT functions to the subcontinent and thereby significantly damaging the American labour market.
But Lord Marbury’s solution was necessary to end the India-Pakistan crisis set up in the previous episode, and Roger Rees, as Marbury, had the opportunity of making a significant gesture to McGarry, to whom he was more of a nuisance and antagonist than anything else. Reese was able to convey such a genuine moment of compassion when he wished McGarry good luck, using only inflection and his eyes, that it was unnecessary to state his understanding of the stigma of drug addiction, but his respect for McGarry to rise above it. Great scripting and acting.
Likewise with McGarry’s press conference in which he plainly admits his episode of treatment for alcoholism and Valium addiction. John Spencer was entirely convincing as the broad shouldered man mounting a podium to face the press corps and their many cameras (illustrated explicitly in a great panning shot). Spencer, who had his own battles with alcohol is said to have commented he didn’t really need to act to talk about addiction.
Perhaps the most memorable lines, though, went to Toby Ziegler, who had the unpleasant task of justifying the contents of the State of the Union speech to bitchy Democrat Congresspeople acting more like Republicans and religious bigots on arts funding.
CONGRESSMAN: Personally, I don’t know what to say to people who argue that the NEA is there to support art that nobody wants to pay for in the first place. I don’t know what to tell people when they say Rogers and Hart didn’t need the NEA to write Oklahoma, and Arthur Murray didn’t need the NEA to write Death of a Salesman.
ZIEGLER: I’d start by telling them that Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote Oklahoma, and Arthur Murray taught ballroom dance, and Arthur Miller did need the NEA to write Death of a Salesman, but it wasn’t called the NEA back then. It was called WPA and it was Roosevelt’s … [long pause] It was Roosevelt’s…
Such culturally barbarian attitudes from legislators just rang true, as died Ziegler’s knowledgeable defence. When he faltered on mention of Roosevelt, I almost thought he had worked out the President’s medical dilemma. Roosevelt’s invalid status is still the most powerful proof that people with illnesses are not incapable from accomplishing great things.
However, Ziegler’s Eureka moment was actually about repudiating the populist statement that ‘the er of big government is over’. A line directly from Bill Clinton’s 1996 State of the Union address.
For Ziegler to oppose that idea, and to gain the agreement of his colleagues and the president to unashamedly back the idea of a government that could help build the nation into a better one is the very essence of liberal democracy.
The Clinton line, cribbed from the Republicans, is instead a lie that government spending trillions on military adventures is small government, and that any expenditure on infrastructure and social policy is waste rather than long-term investment in the future prosperity of the entire country.
Sorkin has described himself as a Democrat for quite some time, but denies that he’s an activist rather than just a passive donor. I wonder whether Sorkin is one of those well-meaning types who doesn’t really understand political economy, or whether he is, like so many other Americans, secretly and doggedly opposed to social spending. Maybe a bit of both. And maybe not as a longitudinally fixed attitude.
Investigating this episode a little bit more, it transpires that Sorkin may have scripted the multiple sclerosis without fully understanding the consequences for the rest of the season, and beyond (see press quotes from The West Wing Episode Guide and the blog of playwright, director, and critic Grant Watson.)
It may be that he was looking merely for a pretext to have the President bedridden in the middle of the day in order to disparage daytime television. That possibility almost diminishes the powerful scripting done later to make the multiple sclerosis a highly effective plot device.
Was Sorkin really so aimless as to leave significant decisions until the last moment? I’m not sure how much ‘Hollywood Hype’ is to be believed, even if the source appears to be Sorkin or his cast. But I do suspect that a lot of the show turned out the way it did by the accident of conflicts among the production team, dynamics between different directors and the cast, and occasional studio interventions.
In that sense I think the show was evolving in real time, as a living thing beyond the control of any single individual, and without the basis of an already crafted legend or novel. And if that’s the case, tribute should indeed go to all involved to make it such a lasting television phenomenon.
Written by Aaron Sorkin. Directed By Arlene Sanford. First aired on 12 January 2000.
Main cast: Rob Lowe as Sam Seaborn; Moira Kelly as Mandy Hampton; Dulé Hill as Charlie Young; Allison Janney as CJ Cregg; Richard Schiff as Toby Ziegler; John Spencer as Leo McGarry; Bradley Whitford as Josh Lyman; and Martin Sheen as President Josiah Bartlet.
Special Guest Stars: Stockard Channing as Abigail ‘Abbey’ Bartlet; John Amos as Admiral Percy Fitzwallace; Roger Rees as Lord John Marbury.
Guest Starring: Allison Smith as Mallory O’Brien; Timothy Busfield as Danny Concannon; Janel Moloney as Donna Moss; Harry Groener as Secretary of Agriculture Roger Tribbey; Madison Mason as Admiral Hackett (the duty White House doctor); David Spielberg as unnamed arts illiterate Congressman; Austin Tichenor as Raymond Burns.
Co-Starring: Kathryn Joosten as Dolores Landingham; NiCole Robinson as Margaret Hooper; Melissa Fitzgerald as Carol Fitzpatrick; Devika Parikh as Bonnie.