How “The West Wing” gets the vote out

Convergence of the week: Jim Lehrer, Archer Daniels Midland, Bush and Gore try to center-tain you.

Topics: George W. Bush, Al Gore,

“In a telephone interview today from St. Louis, where the final debate will take place on Tuesday night, Mr. [Jim] Lehrer said his critics were missing the point. His role, he said, is to foster give-and-take, and not become a star attraction. ‘If somebody wants to be entertained, they ought to go to the circus,’ Mr. Lehrer said. ‘They ought to go to the movies. Or they ought to go to the ballgame. I didn’t sign on to entertain people for 90 minutes three times. These have been tremendous exercises for democracy.’ — from ‘Critics Accuse Moderator of Letting Debate Wander,’ by Richard L. Berke.

“[Thomas] Schlamme ['West Wing' director] … put it another way. ‘If you do a show about politics, people have to represent a certain political allegiance,’ he said. ‘If you do a show about cops, they have to shoot a gun; or a show about doctors, they have to save lives. You’ve got to be specific here. If you play it safe, there’s not a chance the show would be successful.’ — from “‘The West Wing’: Leader of the Free World (Free TV, That Is),” by Bernard Weinraub.”

Why has the quality of this particular election’s political discourse become so stupefyingly, so strangulatingly, dull? The convergent quotes above, drawn from Tuesday’s New York Times, provide one point of access. The “centrist” media, as epitomized by Lehrer (Archer Daniels Midland’s anchor to the world), insists on a bipartisan equivalence: If the candidates themselves won’t bring up the dramatic issues, they ask disingenuously, how can we be expected to? The scandal about George W. Bush’s complete failure to respond to the handwritten confession of a Texas convict, utterly exonerating two other lifers goes unreported or at best drifts to the back pages, because the candidates themselves refuse either to echo, or, conversely, to address the charge.

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Of course, to begin with, this characterization of the state of play elides the fact that the bipartisan debate commission (a commission sponsored by the two major parties, themselves already as in hoc to ADM and their like as is Lehrer) has arbitrarily limited the debate to its own two candidates, for example, by leaving out Ralph Nader (despite massive polling results supporting his inclusion in the debates), who one can be sure would have raised such issues.

But why do the candidates themselves refuse to highlight their differences, on, for instance gun control, abortion, the Supreme Court and so forth, in any vivid or meaningful way? Here, the answer lies, in part, in the fact that by this point in the campaign they are only trawling for the undecided, the 10 percent of “those likely to vote” who have yet to make up their minds. These are the only folks allowed into the focus groups where all the late strategy and rhetoric get honed. Hence, by all means, say nothing that might upset those people! Steadfastly avoid any hint of that dread disease, partisanship! Now, anyone who still hasn’t made up his mind whom to vote for by this stage is either an idiot (hence the second-grade reading level of most late-phase rhetoric) or more likely, so incapable of deciding which candidate’s centrist exertions most appall or disgust them that they aren’t going to vote at all.

Imagine, for a moment, an alternative model in which the two candidates accentuated their differences, playing to their bases and relying on the resultingly vigorous political discourse and enthusiasms to cleave that vaunted middle (letting the supporters of one side or the other in the body politic try to convince their as-yet undecided co-workers or neighbors).

Impossible? Probably. Because the real reason Al Gore and Bush come off as so numbingly similar on issues is because they, like Lehrer, all are in the pocket of corporate interest such as ADM.

Which raises the only remaining question: How does “The West Wing” get away with it?

Lawrence Weschler is the author of, among others, "A Miracle, A Universe: Settling Accounts with Torturers"; "Calamities of Exile"; "Vermeer in Bosnia"; and most recently, "Uncanny Valley: Adventures in the Narrative."

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