To return to the matter of the “very direct relation…between the minutes of meetings and minutes of agony” (Berger) adumbrated in the episode of The West Wing: That “time” is the answer to the question Josh poses to the pharmaceutical executives – “What’s the x factor?” – and to its more generalized version – “What’s the problem?” – was underscored in the subsequent scene:
Executive: I think there’s a more fundamental problem than marginal cost…a hard truth that should be faced.
Toby: What’s that?
Executive: If tomorrow we made AIDS medication free to every available patient in your country, as much as they needed for as long as they needed it, it would likely make very little difference in the spread of the epidemic.
Executive: Anti-HIV drugs are a triple cocktail. It’s a complicated regimen that requires ten pills to be taken every day at precise times: two protease inhibitors every eight hours, two combination RT1 pills every twelve hours.
Josh: What’s the problem?
Following an uncomfortable pause that required no translation, Toby supplied the response that the corporate representatives evidently preferred to leave unspoken: “They don’t own wristwatches. They can’t tell time.”
That these lines, uttered with unmistakable irony by an actor portraying a fictional character in a dramatic television series, may however improbably have found an afterlife in other media and left a mark on the contemporary historiography of the pandemic is readable in the headline of a newspaper report published several months after the episode first aired: “Activists wonder if life imitates television in U.S. policy on AIDS.” In a sequence of events that may recall, for readers of this blog, the passage from Anne Carson’s “TV Men: Lazarus” cited in a recent post – “As you and I are an imitation of / TV” – two American officials alluded to the language of “In this White House” in the context of a policy debate about increased global funding for the prevention and treatment of HIV/AIDS, and the putative, artificially constructed trade-offs between the two priorities: a debate with profound consequences for sub-Saharan Africa, home of the vast majority of the estimated 36.1 million people who were living with HIV/AIDS as the bureaucrats argued their positions. In a report for the Boston Globe that was subsequently picked up by a host of other news organizations, journalist John Donnelly inquired: “Has The West Wing influenced Washington’s policy on AIDS in Africa? That’s the question AIDS activists are asking after two senior officials said distribution of AIDS cocktails would be complicated by Africans’ inability to tell time” (John Donnelly, Boston Globe, June 18, 2001).