big block of cheese, pt. 5

[Note — this is the long-delayed final section of the “Big Block of Cheese” series, which begins here.]

In no episode of The West Wing does Mr. Sorkin grapple with God more solemnly, and with more sincere valor, than in “Take This Sabbath Day,” a first-season episode chronicling a long weekend in which the President must decide whether to stay the execution of a convicted drug kingpin and murderer. As usual, the research staff on the show throws up some interesting tidbit of governmental trivia — it turns out we don’t execute people over the weekend out of respect for the Jewish and Christian sabbaths. Mr. Sorkin uses this interesting, perhaps startling fact as a springboard for an exploration of the death penalty and its relationship to religious law; as usual, he is willing to attack issues most fictional shows would never even attempt to comment on, and in sophistication of analysis, he’s clearly in a class by himself. But that only makes the episode all the more frustrating; while his vision of the competing moral claims is extremely sharp, his ability to resolve them into a set of substantive arguments is virtually nonexistent.

The episode opens with the Supreme Court refusing to reconsider the lower court’s death penalty — an unexpected move which gives the condemned man’s lawyers only the weekend to find a way to save him. At the same time, because it is a federal case, the President’s staff braces for the inevitable call by oppponents of the death penalty for him to step in and stop the execution. The lawyers, meanwhile, conspire with Toby’s rabbi to make some last-minute amendments to his sermon — “Vengeance is not Jewish,” he intones, setting off a series of brooding discussions of faith in the West Wing over the course of the weekend.

This is a dynamite setup, and even half-fulfilling its promise is quite an achievement for network television. But half is all we get in these discussions, and I can’t help feeling a sense of loss as the script time and again runs right up to the edge of profundity and then backs away.

Toby returns to the temple later in the weekend and confronts his rabbi, who admits to trying to influence Toby and, by extension, the President. Here is the thrust of his argument:

Toby: The Torah doesn’t prohibit capital punishment.
Rabbi Glassman: No.
Toby: It says, “An eye for an eye.”…
Rabbi Glassman: You know what it also says? It says a rebellious child can be brought to the city gates and stoned to death. It says homosexuality is an abomination and punishable by death. It says men can be polygamous and slavery is acceptable. For all I know, that thinking reflected the best wisdom of its time, but it’s just plain wrong by any modern standard. [Emphasis added.] Society has a right to protect itself, but it doesn’t have a right to be vengeful. It has a right to punish, but it doesn’t have a right to kill.

Here we run into exactly the same theological problem we ran into previously — namely, who gets to decide which aspects of the law of Moses are unfit for modern life? The vast majority of Abrahamic monotheists in the world (Christians, Muslims, Baha’is) believe that God has, from time to time, amended His law to reflect the changing social, technological, and spiritual states of humanity. And as we have noted, even the Jewish scriptures record several reinterpretations of the law over time. But to acknowledge that fact is very different from saying that it is possible to be a Jew, to believe in Moses and the Prophets, and also to pick and choose from the Law based on “modern standards.” After all, the very definition of being a Jew but not a Christian or Muslim or Baha’i is to believe that God has not seen fit to change His law in 2,500 or 3,000 years — and if He hasn’t, why should you?

(The idea that “for all I know, this was the best wisdom of the time,” of course, makes perfectly clear the real state of faith here — the rabbi doesn’t believe that the Law is God’s law at all, but, at best, an ancient collection of human “wisdom,” presumably no more sacred or binding than Homer or Plato.)

Moreover, even if we were to acknowledge the “modern standards” argument, it would still have to be shown that execution by the state is in some way more abhorrent to modern sensibilities than to ancient ones. Why, exactly, doesn’t the state have the right to kill — not in vengeance, certainly, but to give society a sense of equanimity, a sense that justice has been done in some measure comparable to the crime?

Mr. Sorkin gives himself at least two more opportunities to answer this question in the episode, first when the President asks political operative and pollster Joey Lucas (Marlee Matlin) her opinion. She answers definitively:

Joey: Stay the execution.
President Bartlet: Why?
Joey: Because the state shouldn’t kill people.
President Bartlet: He was found guilty of a double murder and drug trafficking.
Joey: Send him to prison.

When he quizzes her on Augustine and Aquinas, she responds simply, “Those writings are from other centuries” — essentially falling back on the “That was then, this is now” argument, but giving no modern reason why capital punishment should strike us as horrible.

After his conversation with Rabbi Glassman, Toby goes back to the President steeled to argue the case against capital punishment. Unfortunately, he gives us a bizarre reversal of the previous “modern standards” argument:

President Bartlet: The commandment does not say, “Thou shalt not kill.” It says, “Thou shalt not murder.”
Toby: I know. But the fact is that, even two thousand years ago, the rabbis of the Talmud couldn’t… stomach it. I mean, they weren’t about to rewrite the Torah, but they came up with another way. They came up with legal restrictions, which make our criminal justice system look…. They made it impossible for the state to punish someone by killing them.
President Bartlet: We make it very hard to kill anybody in this country, Toby.
Toby: It should be impossible.
President Bartlet: But it’s not.
Toby: But it should be.

Toby has some fascinating history on his side, but that history seems to show the that there is nothing modern about a reluctance to inflict capital punishment at all. It shows, in fact, that this is a universal and timeless problem, one we will perhaps always carry with us.

The President gets in some good lines here, seeming positively reasonable and giving, indeed, a religious argument while Toby is giving a purely human one. The President also gives strong constitutional arguments a few moments later in a conversation with Leo:

President Bartlet: I commute this guy, for no particular reason other than I don’t like the death penalty —
Leo: I know.
President Bartlet: — and the next President sees it in a different way, I’ve laid track to all kinds of…. The next guy is gonna have eighth amendment problems up the ass.
Leo: Well, if that’s the only thing that’’s stopping you….
President Bartlet: We cannot execute some people and not execute others depending on the mood of the Oval Office. It’s cruel and unusual.
Leo: If that’s the only thing stopping you, then I’ll say this for the first time in your Presidency… Let that be the next guy’s problem.

Why it should always be Leo’s function to advise the President to act inadvisably, I’m not sure, but here, as in the assassination of ‘Abdu’l-Sharif, we find Leo making non-arguments designed to move the President to act. But the President’s arguments hold water quite tightly — it is arguably less humane and certainly less constitutional to have an irrational policy based on whether the current president can “stomach it” than to have a consistent policy of capital punishment. This is the very meaning of the prohibition of “unusual” punishment, and to use the executive power to stay an execution — a power meant to avert cases of gross injustice, where the court system has somehow failed — solely out of an individual’s ideological squeamishness about death.

Strangely, as we have noted, not one character in the show gives, even, a reason for this squeamishness. C.J. comes closest when she admits she doesn’t want to know the prisoner’s mother’s name, but she also admits that she “can’t really get worked up about” the death penalty, although opposing it is supposedly a staple of liberal identity. So much for that. Let us now turn to the religious argument, the only one really left: the President is a Catholic, and as Rabbi Glassman says, “You can say all you want about the Catholic Church, but their position on life is unimpeachable. No abortion, no death penalty.”

At three minutes to midnight, the hour of the scheduled execution, President Bartlet meets with his old parish priest (Karl Malden in a part that feels uncomfortably like it was lifted whole out of a 1950s pedagogical TV drama — probably one written by Rod Serling). It’s far too late to do anything, so the conversation is basically a spiritual autopsy of the President’s decision.

President Bartlet: I want you to know that I had a number of people on my staff search for a reason the public would find palatable to commute the sentence. A technicality. Any evidence of

Father Cavanaugh: So your staff spent the weekend looking for a way out.
President Bartlet: Yeah.
Father Cavanaugh: Like the kid in right field who doesn’t want the ball to get hit to him.
President Bartlet: I’m the leader of a democracy, Tom. Seventy-one percent of the people support capital punishment. The people have spoken. The courts have spoken.


President Bartlet: Anyway. I looked for a way out, I really did.
Father Cavanaugh: “‘Vengeance is mine,’ sayeth the Lord.” You know what that means? God is the only one
who gets to kill people.
President Bartlet: I know.
Father Cavanaugh: That was your way out.
President Bartlet: I know.

Father Cavanaugh is quoting Romans 12, where Paul quotes Deuteronomy 32. The full context of Paul’s use of this phrase is in describing the behavior of a Christian in response to wrongs generally and religious persecution specifically. I imagine the Apostle, who anticipated the imminent return of the Lord and the end of human society, would be positively bemused to discover that two thousand years later his words of spiritual council to his fellow-believers would be used to justify an approach to the administration of state justice, even by a cartoon priest on a prime-time television drama.

Surely a child in Bible school can anticipate the multiple objections to Father Cavanaugh’s argument — that punishment is not the same as vengeance, that Paul was referring to the individual’s spiritual response to attacks, not society’s role as custodian of justice; that God Himself, in the Torah, delegates His punishing authority to society; while Jesus Himself seems to indicate that Christians should not interfere in the work of government.

When President Bartlet admits that he doesn’t feel God has answered his prayers for wisdom, Father Cavanaugh then goes on to — well, it’s hard to believe, actually, but he tells a joke. An old joke:

You know, you remind me of the man that lived by the river. He heard a radio report that the river was going to rush up and flood the town. And that all the residents should evacuate their homes. But the man said, ““I’’m religious. I pray. God loves me. God will save me.” ” The waters rose up. A guy in a row boat came along and he shouted, ““Hey, hey you! You in there. The town is flooding. Let me take you to safety.”” But the man shouted back, ““I’’m religious. I pray. God loves me. God will save me.” ” A helicopter was hovering overhead. And a guy with a megaphone shouted, “”Hey you, you down there. The town is flooding. Let me drop this ladder and I’’ll take you to safety.”” But the man shouted back that he was religious, that he prayed, that God loved him and that God would take him to safety. Well… the man drowned. And standing at the gates of St. Peter, he demanded an audience with God. ““Lord,”” he said, ““I’’m a religious man, I pray. I thought you loved me. Why did this happen?” ” God said, ““I sent you a radio report, a helicopter, and a guy in a rowboat. What the hell are you doing here?””

He sent you a priest, a rabbi, and a Quaker, Mr. President. Not to mention his son,
Jesus Christ. What do you want from him?

Okay, it’s customary for preachers (and, I suppose, priests?) to use jokes in their sermons, and if this one seems a little crusty (I’m pretty sure my dad told it to me at some point), well, part of the function of the clergy is to bring their parishioners back to the comforting and the familiar. But if everything in the show has, so far, aimed at making the execution of Simon Cruz an event of utmost gravity (the silent, three-second shot of the second hand sweeping past midnight on the President’s watch is an incredibly persuasive detail), this climactic bit of wisdom is weirdly, inappropriately jolly and also terribly superficial.

It also leads into a truly lame piece of writing — there’s absolutely nothing in the script to indicate that Father Cavanaugh knows about the rabbi and the Quaker (Joey Lucas), but even if there were, the idea that the whole capital punishment thread, thus far treated with dreadful seriousness, was all along just a kind of shaggy dog story to bring us to this childish punchline, is almost too much to take. “He sent you a priest, a rabbi, and a Quaker” — it’s like the start of another joke. This guy could play the Borscht Belt.

There’s something oddly elegant and satisfying about the President being the only person able to articulate a convincing argument amid the emotional chaos swirling around capital punishment. But whatever it adds to President Bartlet’s credibility as a clear-sighted wise man, it greatly damages the believability of the other characters, who are normally so articulate and opinionated, and it undermines the show’s stated intent of “raising the level of debate in this country.” In the end, the script makes few arguments, and no arguments whatsoever on the side we’re clearly meant to come around to. Instead we’re given the tune of “it’s just wrong” in several different keys and, when that fails, Karl Malden deployed like an embarrassing nostalgia airbag.

It’s hard to know how to measure success and failure in a show like The West Wing, because, really, there’s never been a show like The West Wing. There’s never before been a television show with such ambition, with such passion and such a desire to speak to the polity of a nation about both the mechanics of its government and the great moral decisions of its society. Given that the show is a creation unto itself, how do we measure its accomplishments? To what extent is the mere attempt an accomplishment in itself? And to what extent do its great human moments (the watch, CJ’s awful conversation with the comedian) count for more than its frequent and obvious rhetorical and intellectual failures?

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