Reality Invades 'The West Wing'

One 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 Wing. 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).

Admittedly, 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.

Meanwhile, 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:

How 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 Vinnick.

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 government.

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.”

November 9, 2005

Gary 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.

Copyright © 2005