What's important: fiction or real thing

Published 10:01 am Wednesday, October 11, 2000

By By Sonny Callahan
U.S. Representative
Friends, it is a sad, sad comment on our times when the season premier of a television show about a fictional president draws almost a 50 percent larger audience than the real-life presidential debates the night before.  
Where are our priorities?
Granted, last Wednesday's two-hour special of "The West Wing" had all the elements of suspense.  
The season ended last spring with an assassination attempt on the life of President Josiah Bartlett, and the big question all summer, at least among fans of the show, has been "who was shot?"
Obviously, this wasn't the first  time a network has teased its audience with a cliff-hanger.  Many people will remember the suspense in the 1980s over who shot Texas oilman J.R. Ewing, on the hit show "Dallas." 
But when Vice President Al Gore and Texas Governor George W. Bush met in Boston last Tuesday for the first of three presidential debates, NBC, the network that created "The West Wing," didn't even carry the debate.
Instead they gave their local affiliates around the country the option of showing either the presidential debate or a baseball game. Sadly, Mobile's NBC affiliate chose to air the ballgame.
Is there not some sense of responsibility any more to answer President Kennedy's famous call to duty, "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country?"
Are we really becoming so shallow that we'd rather be entertained with sport or fiction than educated with facts and reality?
Sadly, I'm afraid the answer is yes.  
The overnight Nielson ratings, used to help determine the estimated size of a television audience, were pathetic for the first presidential debate and yet, if the polls are accurate, the race to become the first U.S. president elected in the 21st century is neck and neck.
Does it even matter to most Americans who becomes our next president? Are the differences between the two candidates not significant enough to warrant a little of our time and interest?
In stark contrast stand the events in Yugoslavia last week, where hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets to demand the removal of Slobodan Milosevic from power, this following the first free election there in years. 
Repressed for decades in an area of the world which hasn't known peace or stability for generations, the people of Yugoslavia answered their call to duty, first by participating in the election and then, by doing all they can to help ensure that the results of the election are honored.
Speaking of the debate, since many people don't seem to care who is running or what the issues are, the latest mis-statements by the vice president don't seem to matter either, notwithstanding the fact that if the truth isn't there, Mr. Gore appears willing to just make it up.  To wit:
In the aforementioned debate, Mr. Gore said he had traveled with FEMA director James Lee Witt to view the Texas wildfires in 1998.  Only problem is Mr. Gore didn't make the trip he claimed to have made.  He had to acknowledge that fact the next day.
Ditto a half-dozen other times throughout the debate when seeing that the truth wouldn't work, Mr. Gore just made something else up.  
There was the vice president's story of a 15-year-old girl in Sarasota, Florida, who he said is a victim of school overcrowding and has to stand up in class because she didn't have a desk. However, according to the school principal, the girl has a desk, and went only a day without one while more than $100,000 worth of new furniture and equipment was being unpacked.
And there was the time the vice president said he "took a risk" in asking the former prime minister of Russia to become personally involved in negotiating an end to the conflict in Kosovo. Fact is, however, two weeks before Mr. Gore had to take that risk, Russian President Boris Yeltsin had already designated the prime minister to be a special envoy to the Balkans.
There's an old saying that we're judged by the company we keep.  Perhaps that's the vice president's problem.  For the past eight years, he's been around people who will lie when it would have been better to tell the truth. 
Until next week, take care and God Bless.

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