Monday, April 06, 2015

In Pursuit of 2162 Votes

Ten years ago tonight, the season–ending episode of the West Wing gave viewers something of a glimpse of what would take place in just a few short years.

If viewers could have climbed aboard Marty McFly's DeLorean and traveled ahead a few years, they would have witnessed a scene that had a lot in common with that episode — when Barack Obama would become the first black nominee of a major party for president. But my guess is that, at the time, most viewers wouldn't have believed it if they had been told that it was a prophetic episode.

There were some differences, though, between fiction and the eventual fact.

In the episode that aired on this night in 2005, the Democrats nominated their first Latino candidate for president, played by Jimmy Smits. The title of the episode referred to the number of delegates that were required for nomination, but, unlike it has been in most postwar conventions, no candidate came into the convention with the nomination secured.

Smits' character was locked in a tight race for the nomination with the vice president (played by Gary Cole); the other candidate, the ex–vice president (Tim Matheson) who resigned in disgrace and then launched his quixotic campaign for the Oval Office, was a distant third, but he held enough delegates to prevent either of the others from claiming the nomination.

That is more dramatic than what really took place three years later. Obama cruised to his nomination, clinching it two or three months before the convention. In reality, it made for pretty dramatic television. But it wouldn't have been dramatic enough for a TV show.

The result was that viewers got a lot of inside–baseball kind of stuff — maneuverings and negotiations, behind the scenes things that a political junkie like myself can get into but can quickly become boring for viewers at home.

I could appreciate the subtleties of the writers' flights of fancy over what might happen in such a scenario. After all, a brokered convention is a relic from the past. Few, if any, living Americans have witnessed a genuine brokered convention so the episode might be considered more theory than fiction.

There was nothing fictional about Leo's (John Spencer) instructions to the leaders of the now–growing list of contenders for the nomination — the governor of Pennsylvania (Ed O'Neill) had rejected an overture from the vice president to be the running mate and was, instead, the subject of a supposedly spontaneous draft movement. I thought Leo probably spoke for the majority of viewers when he told them to unite behind a candidate before the president arrived to make his customary farewell speech to his party's convention. "One night of this is entertaining," Leo said. "Two nights, we look like idiots."

Anyway, after all the maneuverings, Smits' character emerged as the nominee, but before that, Leo stopped to speak to Josh (Bradley Whitford).

Leo had long felt that Santos should step aside for the good of the party, but Josh had resisted. In the end, Josh's man prevailed, and Leo accepted that. Then Josh dropped a bombshell on him — Leo was Santos' choice for running mate. Viewers had to wait until the start of the seventh and final season to find out if he would accept. I doubt if anyone thought he wouldn't.

Yes, it made for dramatic television, but it wasn't really true.

It was like in "Absence of Malice" when Sally Field's character was asked to describe her relationship with Paul Newman. "Just say we were involved," she replied.

"That's true, isn't it?" the reporter asked.

"No," Field responded, "but it's accurate."

The political developments in the West Wing weren't true, but they were accurate — at least within the context of what was known to be true.

And they did make for dramatic television.