Sunday night’s live episode of NBC’s “The West Wing,” featuring a Presidential debate between California Republican Senator Arnold Vinick (Alan Alda) and Texas Democratic Congressman Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits), didn’t, curiously enough, cover such hot-button topics as abortion or terrorism. Still, viewers may have learned more about governance and issues that serve as land mines for politicians than they did from all the empty posturing in last year’s actual Presidential debates. And certainly, voters throughout the political spectrum would probably have preferred the fantasy candidates of last night’s spectacle to the ones who actually ran for office in 2004. Moderated by Forrest Sawyer, who really does work for NBC News, the debate was, at Vinick’s request, a no-rules/no-holds-barred affair, with the men frequently and passionately squabbling and speaking over each other. While one got the sense that Vinick’s guileless pragmatism won the day over Santos’ impassioned idealism, it’s hard to imagine that any real politician would have been as straightforward and, well, unplugged as Vinick. Even before the episode aired, Boston University College Professor of History Tom Whalen issued a statement lauding the series for offering something “our current political process fails to provide: a serious, honest and no holds barred discussion of the issues that most affect our society. Unfortunately, the show is an exercise in wishful thinking. Major kudos to the makers of ‘West Wing’ for offering us a vision of a better and more civil political process.” Well, it may not have been “more civil” at one point, Sawyer scolded the candidates for their bickering. But, as written by Lawrence O’Donnell, Jr. (who also serves as an MSNBC political analyst and whose father worked in the Kennedy White House), it was more honest, with viewers getting a sense of the complex difficulties concerning such issues as education, health care and saving Africa from itself. In the show’s narrative, Santos needed the debate more than Vinick, and Santos’ big moment came with a stirring if familiar defense of the word “liberal.” Vinick, who single-mindedly preaches tax cuts in his campaign, was an old-school provocateur, declaring that the Head Start program “doesn’t work,” vowing to create no new jobs (“Entrepreneurs create jobs,” he explained) and declaring that the only way Africa can be saved was through, yes, tax cuts. He then convincingly sold that notion. At times, the debate truly appealed to policy wonks more than drama fans, though the ferocity of Smits’ and, particularly, Alda’s performances kept it riveting. The debate format, which largely took place on one set, wasn’t as technically tricky or ambitious as “ER’s” live episode a few years ago, so there wasn’t much difference between the live performances for East Coast and West Coast audiences. I detected but one noteworthy difference, due to a minor gaffe. On the East Coast, Vinick delivered a line about liberals “trying to alarm us with global warming theories,” which Santos promptly attacked. On the West Coast, Alda delivered the line as, “trying to alarm us with global warming,” to which Smits barked, “Theories?” even though Vinnick had not yet dismissed global warming as a theory. There was a little stumbling, and Smits laughed at the mistake, but was able to make it appear to be Santos’ incredulity at Vinick’s statement. David Kronke,(818) 713-3638 firstname.lastname@example.org AD Quality Auto 360p 720p 1080p Top articles1/5READ MOREWalnut’s Malik Khouzam voted Southern California Boys Athlete of the Week160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set!