West Wing Live Debate, or Where Have You Gone, Hawkeye Pierce?

Somewhat by accident (long day of flying+flipping channels after The Simpsons), I caught the live debate episode of The West Wing, matching Jimmy Smits as Rep. Matt Santos (D-Tex.) against Alan Alda as Sen. Arnold Vinick (R-Calif.). Because I’m interested in the concept (and infrequent practice) of live television, I found teh debate somewhat compelling, if a litle trite. While it’s fairly obvious that the episode was a ratings stunt, it also raised some useful questions about the methods we use to choose our leaders (of course, as Tom Shales notes, it’s not terribly accurate to use the word “debate” to desrcibe what Dan Rather called “joint appearances by presidential candidates, but we knew that already).

At first, the episode’s somewhat skillful use of televisual codes confused me: Why is there a press conference on Sunday night? Am I watching a celebrity roast? Why is Hawkeye pretending to be a conservative? But the “fake news” trick perfected by Orson the Magician back in the day(sixty-seven years ago last week) only lasted a few secinds, and ulike Weles’ War, there was no reason to duck and cover from the debate, unless of course, you’re allergic to cliches.

For the debate the candidates “agreed” to drop the standard debate rules so that they could address each other directly rather than waiting for a moderator (played here by long-ago Atlanta news anchor Forrest Sawyer) to mediate between them. Whether this changed the tone of the debate at all is open to question, but I think the episode illustrated that even with the opportunity for direct address, which both candidates frequently used, both Santos and Vinick tended to stick to relatively familiar talking points. Although I disagree politically with the folks at Blogs4God, I think they’re right to note the “time capsule” effect of the episode: many of the debate topics felt strangely dated while others were terribly short on specifics. Unlike the B4G author, I don’t attribute this to “Hollywood Liberalism” as much as I do a laziness in scripting questions that go beyond the standard arguments (gun control, abortion, capital punishment) we’ve been having for years. This is not suggest that these issues aren’t important, but the questions lended themselves too easily to either-or responses and failed to address contemporary topics such as the Patriot Act and the Supreme Court nominee (what Shales inaptly calls the “politicization of Supreme Court nominating process;” why must “politicization” always be seen as a pejorative?).

Mark Daniels offers a more optomistic reading of the episode, citing its simultaneous aura of reality (the visual cues) and unreality (the direct speech used by each candidate), and while I generally found the episode unsatisfying, there is a utopian aspect of the show–and of this particular episode–that I admire. The attempt to regain genuine debate seemed to guide the episode’s structure, so even if the responses felt shallow to me, the show itself certainly seemed to want to reopen “real” debate and to reject the “joint appearances” model criticized by Rather.

Links and tags: There’s a soemwhat useful discussion of the episode in the comments at Crooks and Liars; , , ,


  1. Mean Dean Said,

    November 7, 2005 @ 3:18 pm

    Thank you for linking to my blog – moreover, thank you for disagreeing in an intelligent and thoughtful manner! No really!

    You context your disagreement well with recent events and more optimistic points of view.

    My biggest contention is that for such a contrived show, we should not expect much more than a contrived debate – though you’re point about scripting laziness has made me stop and think. So thank you!

  2. Chuck Said,

    November 7, 2005 @ 4:04 pm

    Thanks, Dean. While I have strongly held political beliefs, I’m also interested in fostering genuine debate rather than curtailing it, and the show’s representation of debate was fascinating, especially from the position of someone who teaches media studies.

    Even if the show is contrived (which it no doubt is), I think it has some good intentions in imagining alternatives to the supremely scripted “joint appearances” that have passed for debates for at least the last twenty years in which I’ve been following presidential politics.

  3. Mean Dean Said,

    November 7, 2005 @ 4:16 pm

    Well you know which road they claim is paved with good intentions!

    Kidding aside, I do have to agree, if not-so-contrived, it could be a good way to convey to the public and politicians a better way – in this case a better way to debate the actual points (vs. the talking points).

  4. Chuck Said,

    November 7, 2005 @ 8:05 pm

    Maybe a good way of arbitrarily situating myself: I liked the concept of the West Wing debate and even thnk Smits, Alda, and even Sawyer are solid actors, but the exceution was poor. Just terribly generic questions.

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