For the Presidential Candidates, a “West Wing” Proposal

West Wing

I’ve ordered the first couple of episodes of “Political Animals” from iTunes, but I haven’t yet watched any of it. Based on the reviews, I am guessing that I will like it enough to keep at it. But I haven’t set my expectations very high. Not after watching all seven seasons of “West Wing.” I doubt that any other TV fictional portrayal of intrigue in the White House will match the quality of that series.

Needless to say, “West Wing” also beats what we are seeing these days in real life politics. The current presidential campaign is a huge disappointment. This is a tragedy, since the issues we face these days in the US are significant ones, and many of us have a lot of puzzles about how we are going to face them as a nation. What would a fair and humane immigration policy look like? How can we work our way through the complexities posed by the future of Medicare and other entitlement programs? What will it take to guarantee our religious freedoms in a climate that seems increasingly hostile to what many of us cherish? And then, of course, there are also the big questions about national security, military budgets, the global market….whew!

I would love to be educated about such matters by a healthy national dialogue. I am genuinely eager to hear proposals from all places on the spectrum. But it doesn’t look like we are going to be blessed by such a discussion in this campaign. Instead, there is on both sides much name-calling, accusations of dishonesty, digging into each other’s pasts for gossipy tidbits–but little helpful and calm setting forth of realistic ideas that address the important issues.

I have a “West Wing” proposal that could give us the kind of discussion we desperately need. I suggest that both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney take a few hours off from campaigning to watch the seventh episode of the seventh (and final) season of that series—the episode entitled “The Debate.” It was a creative breakthrough for this kind of programming. A presidential election campaign was happening, with two presidential candidates running, played by Alan Alda and Jimmy Smits. And they debated “live.” Not just a portrayal of a “live” debate; the actual drama on that occasion took place in real time. Indeed, even the West Coast version was “live”—they did it again in real time after doing the first run-through earlier for the rest of the country.

Here is the real breakthrough. At the beginning of this episode, the candidates were getting ready to engage in what has typically been passing in recent years for a presidential campaign “debate.” Rules had been carefully negotiated between the two staffs, guaranteeing that each candidate could stay “on message” with carefully rehearsed presentations. Then, just before it all got started, the Republican candidate, played by Alda, challenged his Democratic opponent: “When the greatest hero in the history of my party, Abraham Lincoln, debated, he didn’t need any rules.” And that could happen here, said Alda: “We could just junk the rules.”

The Jimmy Smits character was only momentarily thrown off his pace. To the chagrin of both campaign staffs he quickly responded: “OK, let’s have a real debate.” And they did. They simply talked to each other, stating their views, listening to each other’s responses, arguing back. It was a magnificent performance, enhanced by the spontaneity of the “live” programming.

Again, my proposal. Romney and Obama should agree to watch that episode. Maybe they could even watch it together, unaccompanied by their respective “spin” people. And then afterward they could talk about how to engage each other in a genuine televised dialogue, throwing out the rules that in recent years have made a real exchange between candidates a virtual impossibility.

Too much to hope for? Probably. But each of them claims to have the capacity to assume leadership in times that require much creative savvy. Surely they should want to demonstrate to us what real leadership looks like by being at least as creative as the scriptwriters for “West Wing.”