This morning while working out, I watched an episode from the first season of “The West Wing” (so early in the show that they hadn’t figured out yet that the “Mandy” character just didn’t work at all).
The overriding plotline of the episode, “The Short List,” was the nomination of a new associate justice to the Supreme Court. Everybody starts out excited that they’ve settled on Peyton Cabot Harrison III, a painfully stereotypical WASP with all the right credentials — Exeter, Harvard, editor of the law review, etc. (The moment you know for sure that he’s not actually going to get the job is when he finds himself alone in a room with Charlie, and says Charlie looks familiar, and Charlie says yeah, I used to caddie at your club.)
But just as they’re about to announce their pick, with all the absurd excess of ceremony that attends such nominations, a paper written by the judge three decades earlier surfaces. And in this paper he noted the fact that there is no blanket right to privacy guaranteed in the Constitution.
Which, of course, there isn’t, Griswold notwithstanding.
At this point, Harrison looks so much better to me, even though he is filled with pompous self-regard. But for White House senior staff, this is a deal-killer — so much so that, after months of deliberation that led them to Harrison, they decide, during one five-minute meeting with another guy from the short list, to offer him the nomination.
This is a happy ending on so many levels. Not only is the new nominee, Roberto Mendoza, Hispanic, but he went to public schools and came up the hard way. A very Capraesque ending. All the main characters are lined up outside the Oval Office to applaud as Mendoza exits — even though they couldn’t possibly have known that he would be offered the job in that meeting. (In fact, I think Harrison may still be waiting in another room of the White House, unaware that he’s no longer the guy.)
But it bugs me that the clincher for Mendoza was that he affirmed his belief in the “right to privacy.” Such faith is necessary since only faith gets you there — since there is no such right spelled out in the Constitution.
Apparently trying to enlist a larger share of the audience in applauding the decision, Sam Seaborn says:
It’s not just about abortion, it’s about the next twenty years. The twenties and thirties it was the role of government, the fifties and sixties it was civil rights, the next two decades are going to be privacy. I’m talking about the internet. I’m talking about cell phones. I’m talking about health records and who’s gay and who’s not. Moreover, in a country born on the will to the free, what could be more fundamental than this?
Well, several things, Sam. The right to freedom of conscience repeatedly affirmed in the First Amendment, for one.
Of course, you could say Sam’s completely right. He arrived at that conclusion before the Patriot Act (something that never happened in “The West Wing’s” 9/11-less universe), or the hysteria engendered by Edward Snowden.
But if he is, well, I suppose that helps explain that sneaking suspicion I sometimes have that by some cosmic accident, I was born into the wrong era…
Anyway, I think I’ve noted before how wistfully painful it can be to watch shows such as this, and, say, “Madame Secretary,” which assume that all the people running the country are serious, experienced, knowledgeable people earnestly striving to do the right thing.
Episodes such as this one, though, remind us that, as wonderfully lovable as the cast of “The West Wing” was (which was why Mandy had to go; she just didn’t meet that prerequisite), they weren’t perfect.
Still, I’d definitely take them over what we’ve got, in a skinny minute…