The West Wing: celebrating The Stackhouse Filibuster

After Wendy Davis’ feat in Texas this week, we revisit an educational, emotionally rousing episode of The West Wing…

Like escrow, rutabaga and cooties before it, filibuster is a word many of us in the UK first heard on American TV. Specifically, we heard it from the mouth of C.J. Cregg, Allison Janney’s White House Press Secretary in The West Wing’s season two The Stackhouse Filibuster.

The episode, coming as it does five episodes before one of US drama’s most sublime achievements – season two finale Two Cathedrals – is easy to pass over, indeed, it didn’t even make it onto our best-of list. In any other show, an entry so emotionally rousing might have sailed into a top ten, but The West Wing’s seven seasons have an embarrassment of riches and then some.

Written by Aaron Sorkin from a story by Bryan Gordon, The Stackhouse Filibuster is an unabashedly feel-good entry. Structured like an eighties sports flick, it features an ‘he’s never going to make it’ underdog, an act of uncommon perseverance, a last-minute rally from the team, and even concludes with a flurry of high-fives. Just swap W.G Snuffy Walden’s score for some hair rock about achieving your dreams, and you’ve got yourself The Karate Kid Part IV, tag line: Filibusterin’ Makes Me Feel Good.

I’m being facetious. I’ll stop now.

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Rarely for The West Wing, much of the episode is narrated by voiceover. The story is bookended by an email C.J. writes to her father on the occasion of his 70th birthday, and includes similar parental missives from both Sam and Josh that serve to recap ongoing and incidental events. Introducing characters from outside the White House – C.J and Sam’s fathers, and Josh’s mother – as a proxy audience is an efficient route over The Stackhouse Filibuster’s major hurdle: how to explain to us know-nothings what in the Sam Hill a filibuster actually is.

Exposition to the rescue, “The rules of a filibuster are simple enough. You keep the floor as long as you hold the floor. What does that mean? It means you can’t stop talking, ever.” That means if a Senator wishes to delay a vote, they can attempt to talk it past the deadline, but in the meantime, they can’t eat, drink, leave the chamber, lean or sit on anything. C.J. may call it “democracy in work” and “a beautiful thing”, but it’s hard not to see it as the political equivalent of a Bush Tucker Trial, or one of those win-a-car endurance competitions where the last entrant still touching the vehicle is the winner. Still, it makes for great narrative, and as many of us found out this week, if the Senator is singing your tune, it feels like a hell of a victory when they pull it off.

C.J. explains to her father that in order to delay the passing of The Family Wellness Act, a six-billion dollar bipartisan child-oriented healthcare act to which he was unable to add his own 47-million dollar autism research amendment, seventy-eight year old Senator Stackhouse is filibustering his socks off.

Peeved though she and the rest of the staff are about missing their weekend plans, there’s a respect in C.J.’s voice as she tells her father, “If you ever have a free two hours and are so inclined, try standing up and talking without leaning on anything. You wouldn’t make it. I wouldn’t make it. Stackhouse wasn’t supposed to last fifteen minutes. Well, somebody forgot to tell Stackhouse dad, because he just went into hour number eight.”

Throughout the episode, Stackhouse (played by George Coe, a familiar face from, well, just about everything) is seen on monitors and TV screens, his unending speech fading in and out of scenes. What has he been reciting for eight hours? Recipes, mainly, the rules of card games, and David Copperfield in its entirety. Although the episode is a patchwork of continuing plotlines such as the President’s health saga and Vice-President Hoynes’ bid for ascendancy as well as lighter moments such as C.J.’s caper comedy with the Egyptian cat statue and Sam’s run-in with Winifred Hooper (the kind of nineteen year old who exists nowhere but on the set of The West Wing), Stackhouse’s words bring us back to the episode’s focus.

We revisit the meeting at which Josh initially snubbed Stackhouse’s bid (and unwittingly ruined his own weekend New York Mets plans in the process), and eventually come to Donna’s realisation that the Senator has a personal investment in the autism funding for which he’s fighting. Like a more loveable version of TNG’s Wesley Crusher, assistant Donna solves the mystery of why curmudgeonly Stackhouse is persevering – he has an autistic grandchild – and thinks up the way to save his dignity without him conceding any ground: he may only stop speaking while he yields to questions. Cue a quick phone around (“Charlie, start with the grandfathers”), and Stackhouse is offered a reprieve, a rest, and a glass of water thanks to a question from the floor. A question in twenty-two parts.

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Soon after, we’re told, twenty-eight Senators were in the queue to ask more, and thus one man, described earlier by Josh as having “little influence, little power, and few friends” (it speaks of the high status of our cast that a State Senator can be accepted as such), achieves his mission. The vote is delayed, the bill is reopened, and the autism funding added like the star at the top of the Christmas tree. Putting aside questions as to why the revelation of his personal connection to a disease suddenly brings everyone around to Stackhouse’s cause (autistic kids not born to Senator grandfathers don’t inspire support?), it’s tear-in-the-eye stuff.

The Stackhouse Filibuster’s story of one man’s dignified fight to achieve a goal against the odds brings a lump to the throat. It fires up the same emotions we feel when Gregory Peck urges the jury to do its duty and believe in Tom Robinson, when Rose Tyler disintegrates that fleet of Daleks, or when Neville wins Gryffindor those last ten points and thus the House Cup. Granted, for people who like their West Wing a little more shouting-Latin-at-God, it may seem schmaltzy, but with season two’s shooting, MS storyline, and the finale events to come, Lord knows we could all use a high-five at this point.

Anyway, aren’t the high-fives the whole point of The West Wing? It’s Revenge of the Nerds writ large on a political stage (in true West Wing style, what saves Stackhouse isn’t his dogged tenacity or grandfatherly love, but nerdy inside-and-out knowledge of bureaucratic Senate rules). The series is a wish-fulfilment parallel world that ran alongside the Bush administration, showing brilliant thinkers using their vast vocabularies and even vaster brains to beat the bullies and slam-dunk the victories we lefties wanted to see in real life. At a time when George Dubya sat in the Oval Office, Aaron Sorkin had opened up a TV-land portal to a President who spoke four languages and had a Nobel Prize in Economics. What was it Voltaire said? If Jed Bartlet didn’t exist, it would be necessary to invent him. Or something along those lines.

The Stackhouse Filibuster is a history and politics lesson wrapped in an uplifting, entertaining package. It’s A Charlie Brown Christmas, told through the medium of bureaucracy. Everyone starts the episode selfishly concerned with their own lives, then unites to stand with its quiet hero – a seventy-eight year old grandfather who refused to sit down and let it happen.

“This doesn’t seem like any old filibuster” remarks C.J., before The West Wing’s triumphant, inspiring theme music kicks in. They should have played it when Wendy Davis finally walked out of that building.

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