Wednesday, July 1, 2009

"The West Wing": "Mr. Willis of Ohio"

This blog took a break while I was on vacation, but I expect to get some new posts up soon, starting with this one, about the sixth episode of "The West Wing," called "Mr. Willis of Ohio."

The episode is important in the history of "West Wing" because of several plot threads, notably a bar confrontation involving Zoey Bartlet which leads to the president making comments which foreshadow the Zoey kidnapping later in the series. But the title of the episode, written by Aaron Sorkin, points us to the great civics lesson in the telecast, with an ordinary citizen proving wiser about the good of the nation than the professional politicians around him.

Toby is trying to get votes for a census issue. One of them is Joe Willis, an eighth-grade Social Studies teacher appointed to complete the term of his late wife.
He apparently has no plans to run for her seat -- he pointedly declines to be called "Congressman" early in the episode, and at the end indicates that he will only be casting one vote in the House before he leaves.

The issue -- involving whether to use a population sample or a head count -- is full of political implications. But Toby carries the day when Willis, who is African-American, agrees to support the White House proposal. He has been persuaded by Toby's argument that the Constitution can be read flexibly on how to count the population because it counts a slave as just three-fifths of a person. (Willis knows this because of his teaching Social Studies.) At the end of the show, Toby, full of admiration for Willis, pauses before a staff poker game to see the telecast of Willis casting his vote.

Willis, by the way, is identified solely as a congressman from Ohio, rather than being from a specific district, although "West Wing" did at times toss around references to individual congressional districts. But it is reasonable to think of him as being from Northeast Ohio, since that was the home base of Louis Stokes, the first African-American to represent Ohio in the House of Representatives. A year before "The West Wing" aired, Stephanie Tubbs Jones, the first African-American woman to represent Ohio in the House, had been elected to Stokes's seat after his retirement. Of course, both Tubbs Jones and Stokes were veteran politicians, while Willis is not.

There is also a band from Switzerland called Mr. Willis of Ohio.

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