Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Stormy Present: The One Episode of The West Wing That's Bothered Me for Seven Years

After creator Aaron Sorkin and chief director Thomas Schlamme left The West Wing at the end of the fourth season, the show entered a severe creative slump that only lessened with the spectacular episode "The Supremes" (guest-starring Glenn Close and William Fichtner as potential Supreme Court nominees), and then lasted until the seventh season, when the show got halfway and almost three-quarters to being Sorkin-like. I hung on. I had watched The West Wing from the beginning in 1999, graduated high school between seasons 3 and 4, and moved to Southern California between seasons 4 and 5, which should have been a sign of what living in Southern California was going to be like for eight years.

No matter how much John Goodman's Glenallen Walken was wasted as an Acting President (There was so much more they could have pursued with that storyline than just partisan sniping), no matter how bad the writing got, I was there. I kept hoping for better. I knew that without Sorkin, the show could never again reach the greatness it had consistently achieved, but I wanted enough of my show back to justify still watching it. I'm fascinated with the presidency, historical and fictional, and I just wanted my show to work again.

When "The Stormy Present" originally aired on January 7, 2004, I was hopeful. John Goodman was returning as Glenallen Walken, and James Cromwell was guest-starring as former president D. Wire Newman, the last Democratic president in office before Bartlet. All three were flying on Air Force One to the funeral of former president Owen Lassiter, a Republican, and likely Bartlet's predecessor, as Lassiter had served eight years in office throughout the '90s (The West Wing universe is markedly different from ours, especially with the differences in election years, which fans online have theorized about at length).

This was a few months before Reagan had died, so the funeral was modeled on Nixon's in 1994. It was being held at the "Lassiter Library in Costa Mesa," "The one with the fake Oval," as Josh states in Leo McGarry's office. Nixon's library does not look like what they filmed. It seems more vast, and quietly haunting, not just because of the funeral at hand, but I guess all presidential libraries are haunting in a way, with a recap of power, photos all over, various historical videos (The starting point of the Nixon Library has a video of Pat Nixon accepting a gift of two pandas from China for the National Zoo), accomplishments heralded, and scandals kept on the down low, save for the Nixon Library which apparently has a new Watergate exhibit that hews closely to the truth and not created by loyalists, as the previous exhibit was.

Bartlet with Newman and Walken could mean that the men would talk about their time in office, how they feel personally about the huge burden placed on them as leaders, however temporarily it was for Walken. It would be interesting to learn what it was like for Walken when he was summoned to the Oval Office to become Acting President. All we saw at the end of the fourth season was him coming down the steps of what might have been his home, or the Capitol building, and being ushered into a waiting car with a security detail there, and then climbing out of it and walking up the steps to the back end of the White House.

None of that happened. The episode was also about a protest in Saudi Arabia shouting for democracy, and the thought by Newman that Walken's actions of bombing Qumar (fictional Middle Eastern country in our world) in retaliation for Zoey Bartlet's kidnapping may have helped foster the protest. It's just policy discussions between Newman and Bartlet, and then all three after Walken joins them when the plane lands in Missouri to pick him up.

I still somewhat like the episode because of the presidential library setting, but Newman gets more play when discussing with Bartlet how he felt when Bartlet revealed to the world that he had multiple sclerosis. Walken is reduced to sitting with Bartlet on a bench, recounting a trip to China with Lassiter. The show is generally only 42 minutes, I get that, but here was a grand opportunity for reflection of a kind. Instead, the episode is also jammed with "B" and "C" storylines of Josh mediating a dispute between Connecticut and North Carolina on who actually owns a copy of the Bill of Rights that was stolen by a Union soldier during the Civil War, and C.J. finding out if the Department of Defense is heading up mind-control research. Useless storylines. What was so wrong with spending more time on Air Force One, and at the Lassiter Library, a little more time than just the last 11 minutes? There's former members of Lassiter's cabinet on the plane, including one named Bobby Bodine, "who I think tried to sell back Alaska as Secretary of the Interior," as Toby tells Josh on his cell phone while walking to the plane. Shouldn't Toby talk to these men that incense him so? He may not come to an understanding with them, if they'd want to talk to him at all, but just to put more meat in the episode. Here is a long-ago administration in the same plane as one that's most likely in the second year of its second term (I can't quite determine here what year the Bartlet administration is in, but that feels right).

There's a covered outdoor area of the Lassiter Library that Bartlet and Newman somberly walk through, and there's a banner with Lassiter's likeness on it. Here is this man's presidential library. Here are these men who have served and are serving in the same office. Reflective moments were sorely needed in this episode, from those former Lassiter cabinet members, from Walken, from Newman, from Bartlet (though he does get one when he talks with Toby, who's having trouble writing Bartlet's eulogy for Lassiter). What does it mean to these men to have been in power, to have power? How does it change them?

All of that would have been most welcome. But still I'll watch that episode occasionally (I am right now on Amazon), reminded of Reagan's death and the events that followed, and watching the Reagan funeral motorcade on that freeway from our apartment in Valencia in that summer of 2004. And it continues to inspire me for one presidential history book I want to write. I watch with regret, though. Always regret.

More Hope

Not that I need any reassurance that moving to Henderson and always having Las Vegas available is the right path for me, but it's always nice to have those moments along the way to it that give more than you thought was there. Much more. And I've already thought there to be so much to look forward to already.

I'm reading a novel called Greyhound, published by AmazonEncore, about a 11-year-old, nearly 12, who's put on a Greyhound bus in Stockton, California by his feckless, uncaring mother, pushing him off to Altoona, Pennsylvania to live with his father's grandmother (a father who left long ago), because she doesn't want him to interfere with her new life with her new man, Dick, another man in a long line of men. This is a three-and-a-half day journey for the boy, with many well-defined characters along the way, the best so far being the kindly Mr. Hastings, working behind the ticket counter at the Los Angeles Greyhound terminal, and Marcus Franklin, his seatmate out of Los Angeles, a Langston Hughes and Miles Davis conoisseur.

I'm only on page 58, out of 240 pages, and I love this novel. I was on page 20 a few minutes ago and I knew that it was going into my permanent collection. Most important to me is where AmazonEncore seems to be based. On the copyright page, there's a P.O. Box address that ends with "Las Vegas, NV 89140."

Great literature does exist in, and come out of, Las Vegas. It is a place for readers and writers just as much as it is for dreamers. I will be proud to be part of it, because there's so much to see, so much to feel, so much to write about. From there, anything is possible for me, and AmazonEncore's existence gives me more hope. Maybe it was just a matter of convenience for the company, to not have that division ensconced in a thickly-populated metropolis. Even so, they have the right idea. The writers that fuel AmazonEncore may not come from Las Vegas (Steffan Piper, the author of Greyhound, lives in Los Angeles), but the books themselves do. The city is part of yet another valuable service.