Thursday, February 17, 2005

The West Wing - February 16

I mentioned in an earlier post that this season of The West Wing has split its focus between the last days of the Bartlet presidency and the campaign to replace Bartlet. Last week's episode was a "White House" episode while tonight's episode was a "Campaign" episode. While I don't intend to describe one type of episode as better than the other, I do think that the campaign episodes tend to illustrate what viewers liked about the show initially.

At one point Aaron Sorkin apparently said that the Bartlet administration was meant to represent an idealised version of the Presidency. I even recall that he - or someone associated with the show - was more specific and said that The West Wing was meant to depict what the Clinton presidency should have been. The campaign episodes seem to be an effort to get back to this sort of view. It seems clear that in the depiction of the Santos campaigns what we're seeing is the sort of political campaign that people want (or at least say they want until they don't vote for politicians who try to run that sort of campaign).

In Wednesday's episode, Josh Lyman is desperately trying to get his candidate noticed. His problem is that he doesn't have the money to compete against the advertising dollars that the two leading candidates, former Vice President John Hoynes (who resigned his office in disgrace) and current Vice President "Bingo" Bob Russell, have. The crisis point is that the New Hampshire newspaper that is sponsoring the final debate before the primary day only wants the two leading candidates not all "seven dwarfs" (a phrase coined by Amy Gardner, Josh's ex-girlfriend, which refers to all of the Democratic candidates including Hoynes and Russell although neither of them thinks the phrase refers to them). Josh wants to do everything he can to get his man into the debates including court challenges and sending two guys in chicken suits to campaign stops of the two major candidates asking why they won't debate; in short he wants to play politics as usual. Santos doesn't want a court case, doesn't want guys in chicken suits, doesn't want debates that are merely beauty contests and opportunities for the big candidates to spout their selected sound bites, and if he loses then at least he did it his way. Meanwhile we are treated to some of the campaign ads that Russell and Hoynes are throwing at each other. Instead talking about policy they are attacking each others supposed record, trying to show who is less suitable to be president. Following the Russell campaign, which is after all being run by regular cast members Will Bailey and Donna Moss we see politics as usual, the candidate doing all of the expected things and telling - and retelling to the next audience - all the same jokes that other candidates have used over the years.

Things come to a head when Josh unveils the ad that he wants to use to resurrect the campaign; an attack ad using the chicken motif and asking why the leading candidates didn't want to debate the five candidates who are described as having no chance, including Santos. Santos refuses to approve it. After some discussion with one of his aides about the meaning of the "Presidential voice" Santos decides to go to he one TV station that they were able to buy time on and do a one minute live ad explaining exactly why he's running and promising that as long as he's in the campaign he'll never use a negative ad and will always be honest about his positions. By the time they get back to their campaign headquarters the phones are ringing off the hook with campaign contributors, the media is asking Santos all of the pertinent questions, and an alternate debate that Josh had set up as a ploy to get Hoynes and Russell to let the minor candidates into the big show (and which no one, even the minor candidates wanted to be part of) suddenly has all six of the other candidates falling over themselves to get in, even if it does use Santos's rules.

The episode has some references to a couple of real incidents. The fight over who would be invited to the debates refers to the 1980 incident where the Nashua Telegraph set up a debate between George Bush and Ronald Reagan. Bob Dole complained to the Federal Elections Commission, claiming that this constituted an illegal campaign contribution (just as Josh wanted to do in this episode) and the Commission agreed. Reagan then offered to pay for the debates himself and invited the other candidates to attend. When they arrived at the hall they found Bush, a table and two chairs, and Bush's campaign chief, James Baker, said that unless the other candidates left Bush would not debate. When the crowd started reacting to the attempts to remove the other candidates, Reagan tried to explain only to have an editor from the Telegraph tell the sound man to turn off Reagan's microphone, which led to Reagan's outburst: "I'm paying for this microphone."

The other incident relates to the title of the episode, "Freedonia". In the episode Josh tells Santos of an incident in a New Jersey Senate campaign in which a candidate was asked to comment about some incident in Freedonia and the candidate did. The next day there was nothing in the press about what the candidate had said. This probably refers to an incident in the 2000 when Canadian satirist Rick Mercer asked candidate George W. Bush to comment on an endorsement given to him by Canada's Prime Minister Poutine. Bush said that he was happy to hear about the endorsement. Of course the Prime Minister of Canada was not Mr. Poutine - "Poutine" is a popular food item popular in Quebec consisting of French Fries topped with cheese curds and gravy - but while Bush's not knowing who the Prime Minister of Canada was got lots of play in the Canadian media, it was barely acknowledged in the United States.

The whole thing is an idealised vision of reality of course. People say they want candidates who talk about the issues. They say they want candidates who don't use negative campaigning. They say that they want smart, well informed candidates. They say that they want campaigns that aren't won by the guys with the most money in their war chest. They say they want real debates not shows designed to generate sound bites that can be spun to make a candidate look good. But, look at who they vote for. The West Wing is providing an idealised vision of a campaign where people will vote for candidates who are straight shooters, who speak their minds and are partners with their handlers not products packaged by them who at the end of the election ask, as Robert Redford's character in The Candidate asked "What do we do now?"

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