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"West Wing," NBC's "ER" in the White House -- or "Pennsylvania Avenue Blues" without the uniforms of Hill Street -- was the network's biggest debut show since 1994. More than 16.9 million people watched its first episode, according to the Nielsen ratings. Alas for NBC, that left it in second place for the night. The annual Country Music Awards show on CBS was watched by 20.4 million.

But, as you might expect, "West Wing" -- everyone knows, right, that the president's office is in the West Wing of the White House -- won the night in Washington. Here 327,000 of the 1.9 households in the capital area were tuned to NBC. Only 230,000 (on average) watched the music show.

I was one of them watching the White House show, and I liked it a lot better than most television critics did. With consultants like Dee Dee Myers helping them, the producers got more right than wrong. The action was a little too frenetic, with young actors popping in, out and through narrow hallways, but the dialogue caught the wonder and bumbling innocence -- and the fatigue -- of young people with more power than they would have in the real world outside guarded gates.

"Hmmm . . . it does ring a vague bell," said John F. Harris, the White House correspondent of the Washington Post, joking about earnest, self-important assistants-to-assistants trying to sell or kill stories to jaded reporters. In fact, almost all the white male assistants, which means almost all the assistants, seemed to be based on George Stephanopoulos. Harris caught that, saying that it seemed like the first year of the Clinton White House rather than the calmer hundredth or whatever year we're in now. In 1993, more or less, the White House staff were the most influential homeless people in the country, sleeping on sofas in the office or in someone else's apartment -- a break in 20-hour workdays.

I would not exactly recommend the show as a civics text. But I would recommend a companion piece making some of the same points about the way our democracy works at the highest levels. It is an article titled "Camelot, Robert Kennedy and Counter-Insurgency" in the current issue of Virginia Quarterly Review (circulation 3,000), published at the University of Virginia.

The author is Charles Maechling Jr., a young lawyer who worked with something called Special Group (CI) from 1962 to 1966. "CI," of course, meant Counter-Insurgency, created and loved so much by President Kennedy that his brother Robert, the attorney general, and Averell Harriman, the toughest guy in the West Wing in those days, attended every meeting.

The action, all too real, described by Maechling, is also not all that different from how "West Wing" looked in its first show. He catches the "Who the hell are these guys?" atmosphere of any White House when he comes into the office of Gen. Edwin Lansdale, the legendary Col. Hillandale of "The Ugly American."

"A stormy petrel," a bird looking for trouble, Maechling thinks, as Lansdale goes off into an "incoherent tirade." There's one in every White House -- many more in unlucky years: Think of G. Gordon Liddy or Oliver North. It only hurts when you laugh -- or when we invade someplace.

Maechling, of course, is not writing for laughs, even if he has a hilarious bit about Robert Kennedy's discourses with Foreign Service officers, "conditioned to craven subservience before political masters," unable to bring themselves to tell the president's brother that he doesn't know what he's talking about.

Great fun. What came of it? Well, Maechling reports, Vietnam. And then there is Indonesia, where the Group was training and supplying "special forces" commanded by an army officer named Suharto, who used those troops to take over the country and kill 300,000 people or so in the process. And there is Colombia, too, where the mission has changed every couple of years, but American money, weapons and training have been constants since the 1960s.

So here in Washington we like "West Wing," mainly because it's not real -- most of it, anyway.

Universal Press Syndicate

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