Reality Invades 'The West Wing'

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of the facts of political life that drive liberals crazy is that
younger American voters are not buying the liberals’ economic agenda.
Despite being locked up in government schools for 12 years to 16
years or longer, they still believe that the free market offers
them a better future than a government bureaucracy. Reagan was the
first candidate to prove this in 1980. Twenty-five years later,
liberals are still dreaming of the good old days of Jimmy Carter’s
victory over Gerald Ford.

They got another
dose of reality on Monday, November 6. That was when Zogby released
the poll numbers for NBC’s Sunday evening West
. NBC had staged a gimmick for the faltering show: a
live though ersatz Presidential debate.

That was creative.
Live drama on TV is simply unheard of. Even in drama’s golden era
of the 1950s, the networks used Kinescope, the video equivalent
technology of that era. From the day in 1947 that Bing Crosby started
using the first American-made tape recorder to record one show instead
of performing three live ones to cover the four American time zones,
live performances began to disappear.

The West
Wing is dying. Euthanasia is called for. Its quality of life
is fading fast. Poor scripts with implausible events and little
follow-through, week to week, coupled with actors forced to talk
too fast in hallways to be heard, have driven down the show’s ratings
for three seasons in a row. Finally, NBC executives switched it
from Wednesday evening to Sunday evening. This failed to work. It
is still in third place.

I admit it:
I watch the show. I don’t watch it with the enthusiasm that I watch
House, which I discovered last season, but until House
came along, The West Wing was the only dramatic series I
had watched regularly since Star
Trek: The Next Generation
went off the air. The actors are
good, the scripts used to be tightly written and funny, and the
dialogue had not eroded into an evening of “what did he say?”

Sunday’s show
was not “recorded before a live audience,” but actually live. There
were two versions, I later read: one for the eastern time zone and
one for the west coast. I don’t know what the mountain time zone
people watched or when. I saw the eastern time zone version.

The format
was a presidential campaign debate — a real one, wide open, not
the tightly controlled debates (scripted “sound bites”) that voters
have come to hate. In a post-show Zogby poll, viewers by two to
one said they preferred this debate to the “real” ones broadcast
every four years. I did, too. The real ones look phony to me. This
one looked real.

Liberal Hispanic
Democrat Mat Santos (Jimmy Smits) took on free market Republican
Senator Arnold Vinnick (Alan Alda).

the show’s entire premise for a year has been out of touch with
reality. No Congressman has won the Presidency since Abraham Lincoln,
and he had not been in office for twelve years. He did it through
a new political party. If a man is not a governor, senator, vice
president, or a popular general of a popular war, he does not get
elected President.

The show has
long featured a liberal President (Martin Sheen) who won the Nobel
Prize in economics — another statistically unlikely combination.
The script writers have been grooming Smits’ character for a year
to replace Sheen’s character, who is afflicted with MS.

Then came the
great debate.

Alan Alda waxed
the floor with Smits. It is not just that Alda is a better actor.
It is not just that Alda did better than Smits in a live performance.
It is that Alda’s character really did defend the Republican Party’s
version of the free market, which means Reagan’s rhetoric, but without
the budget deficits.

Alda is a liberal,
but he is a professional actor. He did his best to make Vinnick
sound believable. He succeeded.

I presume that
the two actors had scripts for their closing statements. Alda was
given the right to close the debate. Alda’s closing statement was
really true to the issue at hand. It laid down the choices: big
government and more bureaucracy vs. power to the people through
the free market.

Zogby polled
viewers before and after. Alda wiped out Smits with the coveted
audience, ages 18—30: 56% to 42%. Before the debate, Santos
had led 54% to 37%.

Overall, male
viewers voted for Alda 55% to 39%. Women were 68% for Smits, 23%
for Alda. This did not change as a result of the debate.

The script
writers had focused on Santos for a year. Alda’s character was a
Republican conservative as scripted by New York liberals: Bob Dole
without Libby. But on Sunday evening, the two actors had to duke
it out based on real ideas.

The script
writers allowed think tanks to provide debate-type facts and figures
and arguments for each actor to learn. Alda, a good actor, did his
homework. Like any good debater who in competition can be called
on to take either the pro or con position, politically liberal Alda
made Vinnick sound like a well-informed conservative.

Then came the
close. There, either Alda or the script writers summed up what a
Reagan type candidate would say. I thought the close was both powerful
and on-target ideologically. It was what I would like to hear from
a lying, compromised Presidential candidate, which they all are.
It was rhetorically sound, though of course not what a conservative
Republican would actually deliver if elected. Voters know that.
Most voters presumably know that by the time it’s down to the final
two candidates, the debates have less reality than the staged one
on West Wing.

the Medicare crowd preferred Smits, 68% to 27%. The 65 and older
people love their handouts.

This is why
I think the viewers played along with the show’s make-believe setting.
They really did pretend that the actors were real and the debate
was real. Alan Alda is a Medicare guy in real life. Smits is a heart-throbber
who could make it on an afternoon soap opera. Alda won the kids;
Smits won the geezers. Both groups were voting their pocketbooks.

My favorite
exchange was this one:

many jobs will you create?” [moderator Forrest] Sawyer asked Vinnick.

“None,” he
replied. “Entrepreneurs create jobs. Business creates jobs. The
president’s job is to get out of the way.”

When was the
last time you heard anyone on a TV dramatic show say something like
this? For that matter, when was the last time you heard a politician
(other than Ron Paul) say something like this?

The Zogby poll
has created a career mini-crisis for Smits and an ideological crisis
for the script writers. No advertiser on network TV wants to pay
for the geezers. Anyone over age 49 is part of the unwanted generation,
as the lead segment on CBS’ Sunday Morning reported on the
morning of the debate. Advertisers will not pay to attract these
people on network TV, which means that network TV is doomed. The
oldsters have a lot of disposable income; the kids don’t. The advertisers
are betting on the brand loyalty of youth, which is ridiculous.
The web and Google are killing brand loyalty favor of that old free
market favorite, price competition. The network TV business model,
like the network TV ratings, is on life support.

Overall, viewers
gave the debate to Santos, 54% to 38%, down from 59% to 29%. But
the viewers whose opinion counts with advertisers went for Alda’s

Alda sounded
good because he had been fed real statistics and real arguments
by Beltway right-wing think tanks. A West Wing conservative
character is like a dancing bear in a ballet. The creature can dance
on two legs, but it is still obviously a bear in a tutu.

There were
lots of news stories on this edition of the show, but only the Washington Post discussed the Zogby poll’s
breakdown by age groups. Most of the other accounts confined themselves
to the show’s rating figures. Political reality is hard for liberals
in the news media to swallow: younger voters are fed up with big

As for the
NBC TV news site, I searched for “West Wing” and “Zogby” on November
8. The latest posting was a November 4 story, issued three
days before the final Zogby poll: “For ‘West Wing’ Fans, Santos
is their man.” But for the fans who make the spending decisions,
Vinnick is their man. As soon as Alda escaped the script writers,
he won the debate with the advertisers.

I don’t think
West Wing will survive beyond this season. Smits and Alda
will have to go looking for employment elsewhere, whoever the script
writers decide will win the election. Who knows? Maybe they won’t
tell us. Maybe, for re-runs’ sake, they will end the series like
the man before two doors: one with the lovely maiden behind it,
and one with a tiger.

I shall miss
the show because I shall miss Bruno Gianelli. Bruno is a campaign
media man. His motto: “I can sell anything to anybody.” This season,
Bruno is working for Vinnick. He knows where his bread is buttered.

I will not
miss the show otherwise. It is all about the liberals’ view of the
world of salvation through politics. When it comes to liberals in
Washington or New York City, my sentiments are best summarized by
Bobby Fischer, at age 16, when he became the youngest grand master
in chess history. A reporter asked him what he liked most about
chess. His reply was on-target: “I like to make them squirm.”

9, 2005

North [send him mail] is the
author of Mises
on Money
. Visit
He is also the author of a free 17-volume series, An
Economic Commentary on the Bible

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