I’m not particularly interested in this year’s general election, which is not to say that I’m uninterested. Just not particularly. That is, I pay a lot of attention to it. I just don’t feel compelled or even vaguely inspired to say anything about it, here or anywhere else. Maybe I will; there’s no reason not to, but so far, yeah. Not particularly interested.
But at some point last winter, and carrying into the summer, I began watching The West Wing again, from start to finish. I think I started when I heard about The West Wing Weekly, a podcast with one of the show’s stars, Joshua Malina (Will Bailey, seasons 4 through 7), and a big fan, podcaster and musician Hrishikesh Hirway. Their plan was to talk about each episode, in order, one per week. It’ll be a while.
I couldn’t resist watching ahead, though, and then I just outraced them, probably averaging four or five episodes per week, and a little binge-watching at the end. I started for a reason and continued for a different reason, or several different reasons. Boredom was one. Procrastinating was another.
And a sense that I was trying to wash away the bad taste in my mouth that 2016 has left and will probably continue to leave by watching a shiny and theatrical but idealistic and civic-minded version of governing.
I also began posting little presidential trivia on Facebook, another effort at mouthwash via proxy. These started off with little things I’ve noticed over my lifetime of reading about American history, and then it progressed as I began searching for material that musing late at night inspired.
So I was primed for what came next (inside joke), if surprised by when. Watching the series finale, season 7, episode 22, I saw something that in my current mindset led to an eruption of nerdicity. I caught an error.
I didn’t catch it in the sense that, you know, I alone caught it. Lots of people obviously did, or have over the past decade since it first aired. I’d seen the episode a couple of times. Maybe I even caught the goof before, and then forgot. Don’t rain on my parade. It was fun.
I’ll assume no one reading this knows the show, although if you do it won’t matter. It’s set on the morning of Inauguration Day. The outgoing President and First Lady have just gotten up. The President is looking out the window. His wife starts to banter, not sure if he’s in a funk or just thoughtful about leaving office after 8 years. They comment on the weather and how cold it’ll be outside at the swearing-in.
I’ve got to stop me here. In at least a couple of other places in this episode, the cold weather is mentioned. The President-Elect is seen putting on long underwear and explaining to his wife that someone on his staff advised him against wearing an overcoat, so he would look young and vigorous. A call-back to JFK’s inauguration, actually. Anyway, no coat and hence the long underwear. We obviously didn’t elect an idiot.
I’m just putting that out here. I have no idea why they kept mentioning the cold weather. There’s no plot development that relies on the weather.
Back to our goof. The First Lady tosses out an apparent rhetorical question. “Who in his right mind decided that January would be the best time of year to hold an outdoor ceremony north of the equator?”
Me again. Who talks like this? North of the equator? It’s the inauguration of the President of the United States. We know which side of the equator we’re on. You had me at “ceremony.”
The President laughs and starts naming names. “Jefferson, Adams, Franklin…”
They joke a little bit more. Poke a little fun at those guys in the powdered wigs and their dumb ideas when it came to scheduling stuff.
The President isn’t gloomy, it turns out, just thoughtful. We know this because he speaks softly and doesn’t launch off into one of his soliloquies about meteorology or the Founding Fathers or the benefits of long underwear. He’s a brilliant man but he does go on sometimes.
He certainly doesn’t explain to his wife, an educated person and now First Lady for two terms, that she should know better. In fact, she just asked the question; he’s the one who gave the wrong answer.
And this character, on this show, as written, wouldn’t give the wrong answer because he’s never wrong about stuff like this. Other stuff. But not historical fact stuff. Jefferson, Adams, Franklin.
Again, I’m sure I had to be in the right frame of mind, thinking about history, trying to wring out a few drops of trivia but making certain I remembered everything correctly, so always on guard and rechecking my facts. I was in that frame.
And it was the last episode. This show ran for seven full years and put a lot of effort into getting it right as much as they could, understanding that they were entertaining but also providing a little civics lesson each week if we were receptive to it. This is how you pass a bill. This is how you run a campaign. This is how diplomacy works, etc.
Not to mention our nerdistic fictional president, who most certainly would know that there’s nothing in our founding documents, particularly the Constitution – the writing of which did not involve either Jefferson or Adams – about the inauguration of our presidents. No dates, no structure for ceremony. Just take an oath. The Constitution went into effect – our true birthday as a country – on March 3, 1789, and after Washington’s first term (when he was sworn in on April 30, in fact) Inauguration Day remained on March 3 by statute for 144 years. There were plenty of people alive when I was a kid who remembered inaugurations as taking place in March, since the first one on January 20 (established by the 20th amendment, ratified in 1933) didn’t come around until 1937. A few weeks after my parents were both born. There are less but still plenty of people today who remember March inaugurations.
Ah. Well. It amused me, anyway, that this show would break this carefully constructed fourth wall with such a mistake. The President would have known, and wouldn’t have let his wife off the hook. Not that she wouldn’t know, too. It was dumb.
Now, The West Wing takes place in a slightly different universe, although one that matches ours pretty much up until the mid-60s or so (they refer to Vietnam but don’t reference any presidents past Kennedy). In theory, any screwing around with historical facts is allowed. In practice, I don’t buy it. It’s a goof.
And somehow it still seems more believable than this 2016 election. Go figure. What’s next?