What startled most about the “live” debate between Alan Alda and Jimmy Smits on the November 6 episode of The West Wing was not that the fictitious presidential candidates differed in gritty detail about tax cuts, medical care, gun control, school vouchers, energy policy, illegal immigration, capital punishment, and Africa. (Actually, I take that back. The fact that Africa, and debt relief and drug companies’ profiteering on AIDS, would get ten minutes of prime-time network television for anything other than genocide photo ops is, frankly, astounding.) But you know that when I say “startled,” I’m not talking about substance. The West Wing has talked about substance for years. That’s how we’ve always known it’s fiction. Oddly enough, its ratings and its creative juices both perked up last season for the first time in the post-Sorkin era, when the action moved out of Jed Bartlet’s lame-duck policy-wonk White House onto the presidential primary campaign. Motormouth operatives like Janeane Garofalo and Ron Silver turned away from substance-mongering and into horse-race mode. Even so, in the October run-up to their November 6 mano a mano, as if hoping all the theocons would be bunkered down in a plot to smart-bomb Tehran, Alda and Smits allowed themselves to express nuanced opinions about abortion and intelligent design. But that wasn’t startling; it was merely honorable.
Nor was it especially startling to see a genuine NBC newsman, Forrest Sawyer, play along as the moderator, agreeing to unleash the candidates from their lecterns for a sort of Aboriginal-Australian walkabout, the better to sing their sincerity into totemic being. Newsmen have been selling out to entertainment programs since Murphy Brown. Nor will I bother to stamp my foot at the risible, if limited, commercial interruptions by Ellen DeGeneres for American Express. I like Ellen DeGeneres, just not as an on-air stooge for corporate culture. I also like Alda and Smits—even if, for all their rehearsing of Larry O’Donnell’s script, Alda had several scary senior moments and Smits seemed at times not to know which camera to blink into with his sling of manly jaw. I am sorry neither of them brought up torture, even though Geena Davis came out against Americans doing any such thing during her fictional presidency; nor, apparently, was either wired with a haberdashing hump for help from Karl Rove. But I am pleased that neither nominee resembled the narcoleptic slot machines we have come to expect from what we persist in thinking of as the real thing.
No, what startled most was the absence of spin. How was I supposed to know who “won” when 9 p.m. arrived without an anchorface, a focus group, a party hack, and/or the usual pollsters, liars, and ideologues blowing the usual smoke in my face? Not even in the Monday-morning papers did a single high-dudgeon editorialist or low-concept pundit tell me I hadn’t seen what I thought I saw. Must I then trust my own gut feeling that Aaron Sorkin would have written a more stinging defense of the word liberal than O’Donnell did, and that Smits got the hour’s best line when he proposed to universalize health insurance by removing “over 65” from the list of requirements for Medicare? Surely they can’t be suggesting that I watch television and think for myself?