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A Heartfelt Salute To

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Like all Americans who enjoy a little politics with their entertainment, I have greatly enjoyed this NBC drama since its debut in September 1999. However, during this past season, the quality of the writing has surpassed itself, from excellent to outstanding, especially the last two episodes. I found myself wishing that the excitement of this latest Presidential election, albeit a fictional one, had been present in our actual election, which in the opinions of many left a great deal to be desired, in terms of both the candidates and the final result. If this had been a real election, the results would have been close; and for many Americans, represented a tough choice between two strong, likable and respectable candidates.

When the newest Presidential campaign first began, where the current President Jed Bartlett would be passing the torch to the next President of the United States, I didn't see a serious contest between the two main contenders Santos and Vinick. As a secularist who wants to see the separation of church and state maintained, Matthew Santos, the democratic candidate who advocated better health care for Americans and other liberal issues was the obvious choice. The fact that he is wonderfully portrayed by Jimmy Smits, an actor whose talents I've missed since his departure from the ABC series "NYPD Blue", only received minor consideration. Honest. Although I've also been a fan of Alan Alda's since his performance in the television series M*A*S*H, his character Arnie Vinick appeared to be a staunch Republican whose conservative views would have left me no choice but to vote for Santos. Yes, I know; it's a fictional election. But who says we can't have some fun.

"In God We Trust," however, threw the viewing audience a surprising curve. Two of them, in fact. We get to see that not only was Republican candidate Vinick pro-choice in the matter of abortion, but he was also struggling with the question of religion. Or more accurately, his lack of it. In the current political environment, just being an advocate of the woman's right to choose can cause serious problems for a Republican candidate. One who admits to being an agnostic when it comes to religion, in addition to being pro-choice on abortion, could probably kiss any hopes of the Presidential nomination good-bye. Despite the various problems his controversial positions caused, Vinick was determined not to cave in to the religious right interests, and his final speech to reporters on the matter of religion and government left no question in anyone's mind on where he stood on both:

"I don't see how we can have the separation of church and state in this government if you have to pass a religious test to get in this government. And I want to warn everyone in the press and all the voters out there: if you demand expressions of religious faith from politicians, you are just begging to be lied to. They won't all lie to you but a lot of them will. And it'll be the easiest lie they'll ever have to tell to get your votes. So every day till the end of this campaign, I'll answer any question anyone has on government. But if you have a question on religion, please--go to church. Thank you."

In "Things Falling Apart," viewers saw that far from being a liability, Vinick's refusal to compromise on the matters of abortion and religion turned out to be a tremendous asset, which earned him the Republican Presidential nomination.

It's going to be hard waiting for April 6, when the audience finds out who will be the next "West Wing" President. No matter which candidate is "elected," it will be hard knowing the other had to lose.

In spite of the advances Americans have made in the 229 years since signing the Declaration of Independence in 1776, there are some things which never seem to change. A political candidate who doesn't consider it necessary to "have a personal relationship with the Lord" to lead this country as President of the United States is likely to find his efforts to get elected to even a minor position in government permanently stalled, let alone getting into the White House. Robert Green Ingersoll, the 19th Century Republican who was nicknamed "The Great Agnostic" found that out the hard way. His refusal to change his mind about religion cost him the chance to hold any political office after serving as State Attorney General, an office to which he was appointed by the Republican governor of Illinois in 1867. He became immensely popular as an orator, and he publicly endorsed two Republican candidates for the Presidency. However, his own ambitions for higher positions in public office were never to be realized. Personally, I think that was a shame.

With these newest story lines in The West Wing, however, we can begin to have a glimmer of hope. The writers and producers of this thought-provoking drama obviously disagree with the long-held notions of some Americans who feel that religious faith is a requirement to be elected President. Maybe one or several writers on the West Wing team did some research on Ingersoll, and used their findings to create the fictional character of Arnie Vinick. Considering that both Ingersoll and Vinick have the qualities of intelligence, honesty and being just plain likable in common, it is a good possibility that this was the case. Then again, maybe not. No matter how they came up with the idea of a pro-choice Republican candidate who has openly acknowledged his agnosticism and still received the nomination, it is still an idea that deserves high praise. As does Mr. Alda for playing Vinick so convincingly.

Will we see such a desirable candidate in the real world running for the Presidency in 2008? Maybe not that soon. But thanks to the vision of the West Wing writers and cast members, it may not be as far away as before. It may prompt a growing number of Americans to consider the idea that an agnostic candidate for President, be it a Republican or Democrat, could be just what this country needs to keep America from becoming a Christian-based theocracy. Sure sounds like a winner to me.

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