Reel Life Blurs Reality in O.C.

John J. Pitney Jr. is a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College.

Orange County may soon be getting a new congressman. Sam Seaborn, an aide to President Josiah Bartlet, is running in a special election for the coastal area's vacant House seat.

Of course, I am referring to the world of television's "West Wing." Rob Lowe, who plays Deputy Communications Director Sam Seaborn, announced months ago that he wanted to leave the series. Creator Aaron Sorkin crafted the plot line to explain the character's absence. But if Lowe changes his mind, Seaborn just might lose the race and go back to his old job.

Whatever the fate of Lowe/Seaborn, the story highlights how Hollywood's Orange County differs from the real thing.

On the series, the vacancy occurred when a recently deceased liberal Democrat won an upset victory against the incumbent, a rabid-conservative Republican. Before the general election, Seaborn had gone to Orange County to persuade the dead man's campaign manager to drop the effort, but instead he ended up pledging to run in the dead man's place.

The story has traces of truth. Dead people really have won elections, including the 2000 Missouri Senate race and a 2002 House contest in Hawaii. The California governor's race does not count. Though Gray Davis has never given any evidence of having a heart or soul, official records indicate that he is alive.

The series also accurately described how special House elections work in California: Candidates from all parties appear on a single ballot, and if nobody gets a majority, there is a runoff among the top vote-getters from each party. Sam is the only Democrat, so he is sure to make the first cut.

That's where realism ends. In California these days, competitive elections are vanishing faster than Anna Nicole Smith's dignity. Thanks to gerrymandering, nearly all districts are safe for one party or the other. In Orange County last November, every winner for Congress or State Legislature had a margin of at least 20 percentage points.

Ponder, for instance, the 2002 race that most closely resembled the "West Wing" scenario. Incumbent Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher had a deeply conservative record, with controversial stands on everything from affirmative action to Afghanistan. His challenger, Gerrie Schipske, was a forthright liberal and nurse practitioner who stressed her support for universal health care. She tried to depict Rohrabacher as an extremist by charging that he had made pro-Taliban statements in the mid-1990s.

Like the fictional candidate Horton Wilde, she had run before. Under different district lines in 2000, she had come within 1,800 votes of ousting moderate Republican Rep. Steve Horn. And unlike Wilde, she was still breathing.

In the "West Wing" fantasy land, Schipske would have won. In the real world, Rohrabacher clobbered her with nearly two-thirds of the vote. Geography is political destiny, but the mundane details of congressional district lines do not make for must-see TV.

Like nearly everyone else on "West Wing," the Orange County characters talk in lovely staccato sentences. While waiting for campaign manager Will Bailey (Joshua Malina), Sam made reference to the lead character of "It's a Wonderful Life." Will's assistant dryly replied: "That's George Bailey." During a news conference, reporters pressed Will to tell why he was crusading for a corpse. After reciting a litany of the incumbent's sins, he revealed his point: "There are worse things in the world than no longer being alive."

Nice line, but nobody talks that way in the real Orange County, the real West Wing, or anywhere else outside Aaron Sorkin's mind. In reality, the hardest part of a political journalist's job is transcribing sentence fragments and grunts.

Republicans constitute the exception to the witty repartee on "West Wing." We have not yet met the nasty conservative who lost to Wilde, but if he is like the show's other Republican characters, he will foam at the mouth. That too would be unrealistic. There have not been any verified cases of hydrophobia among Orange County Republicans since Bob Dornan left the scene.

Finally, there was that scene at the beach where Sam and Will Bailey mulled the meaning of politics and life. The episode didn't show much of the beach, leaving viewers to fill their own imaginations with scenes from "Baywatch" and other Southern California programs. Actual location footage would have thrown the story off track. Sam would have stood in gape-jawed horror at what beachgoers really see each day: a massive display of fat folds, liver spots and cellulite bumps.

OK, I shouldn't complain. If Americans get their impression of Orange County from "West Wing," they'll think it is full of handsome men, beautiful women, high ideals and brilliant dialogue. There are worse things in the world than promoting pleasant fantasies.

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