The West Wing: Fiction As Strange As Truth

Spoilers for the major plotlines of recent seasons of The West Wing:

The last two seasons of The West Wing feature Alan Alda as Arnold Vinick, a moderate, pro-choice, Republican senator from California running for President. But every episode about his campaign leaves me pondering the same question over and over again: how did this man ever get nominated? Vinick began last season polling dead last in the Republican primaries, but the show focused on the Democratic race, and by the time they showed us Vinick again, he had won the nomination. Yet every time we see his Presidential campaign, he’s battling the core of his own party. So I ask again: how did the Republican party ever nominate him? Why didn’t these issues come up during the primary? If Vinick’s policies and beliefs are so antithetical to the “social conservatives” (the show’s term) that make up the base of the Republican party, why did they vote for him?

It is, somewhat, the inverse of Jed Bartlet’s history. If you pay attention to the first few seasons of the show, you’ll notice that while there are plenty of references and flashbacks that show us how he won his primary, we’re told almost nothing about the national election. We don’t even know who is opponent was. I can believe the Democratic party would nominate an ultra-intellectual Catholic liberal governor from New England, but I have a hard time seeing him elected President. They did show us the re-election campaign, but it’s much easier to believe a sitting President—whoever it might be—can get re-elected, especially in times of prosperity, than that he could be elected President in the first place.

Perhaps the show’s creators are smart not to show us how these improbabilities occurred. Truth is generally stranger than fiction—on paper, Bartlet’s election is not really more improbable than Jimmy Carter’s—but when fiction is as strange as truth, people tend not to consider it realistic.