October 3, 2000

October 3, 2000 | Commentary on

And the winner is . . .Presidential Debates as a media horse race

At last, the "main event" in the longest political campaign in history is at hand, the first "presidential debate." A better term for what is about to ensue in Boston this evening would be "joint appearance."

As veterans of campaigns know, this will not be an occasion where candidates depart from rehearsed scripts or cross-examine their opponents. They will utilize opening and closing statements to repeat their "message." They regard the interrogator's questions as opportunities to repeat their particular "take" on a particular issue. Any resemblance between the answers and questions will be mere coincidence.

Once the "debate" has ended, the media will repeat with a frequency surpassed only by its replaying of the Rodney King beating not the substance of what the candidates said about issues, but what they "revealed" about themselves. For weeks preceding the Bush-Gore square-off, pundits have been rehashing "memorable moments" from debates past: Nixon's drawn appearance and perspiration, as opposed to Kennedy's "cool" composure, Ford's insistence that Eastern Europe was not under Soviet "domination," Mr. Dole's crack about "Democrat wars," Ronald Reagan's "there you go again" and "I will not make an issue of my opponent's youth and inexperience" ripostes, Michael Dukakis' "wonk-like" response to a question about the death penalty, Lloyd Bentsen's "you're no Jack Kennedy" insult of Dan Quayle, George Bush looking at his watch.

Juxtaposed with candidates' performances on television shows hosted by Oprah Winfrey, Larry King, David Letterman, Jay Leno and others, debates are but another form of entertainment. Some call them the "Super Bowl" of American politics. The comparison is apt.

If one regards the "Superbowl" as the modern equivalent of the Roman Coliseum with the players in the role of gladiators, candidates for president have been cast in the role of Christians with the press as lions. No wonder candidates leave so little to chance.

When the sound went off after Gerald Ford debated Jimmy Carter in 1976, both candidates stood silently behind their podiums for over 20 minutes. The first to request a chair would have been thought "tired" or "weak." Engaging in gentle banter or light conversation would have been deemed "un-presidential." Both men knew how the game was played. Neither was willing to give those who sat in judgment over them an occasion to pounce.

This year's debates will be remembered for the power an all but invisible bureaucracy, backed by private and corporate funds, has exercised over both candidates. When the Bush campaign balked at the dates of the debates and one of the proposed sites, the Presidential Debate Commission deftly relied on the media as its enforcement arm. After weeks of stories reporting that Mr. Bush was seeking to avoid debating, the Republicans yielded, leaving the commission the supreme arbiter, not only of this year's candidates, but of future ones. Even some of its fans now question how much power a self-selected, self-perpetuating, and unaccountable entity should have over a matter of importance to 270 million Americans and the rest of the world.

The commission contributed to the circus atmosphere surrounding this year's debates when it decided to admit an audience to the live debates. This not only multiplied the inconveniences citizens in the hosting cities must endure - through enhanced traffic and security - but presented candidates with an additional problem: how to apportion the allotted tickets. They are expected to award the bulk to contributors. Will this add attendance at future debates to the list of commodities candidates already offer for sale like overnight stays in the Lincoln bedroom and Camp David, attendance at Saturday radio broadcasts, and, as some have suggested, presidential vetoes?

One day the commission, like its counterparts in the sports world, will get into the act too by selling advertising space in the hall to its sponsors.

Whatever happened to the idea of using the debates to educate young people about politics on the campuses where they are held? Most of them will be watching the proceedings on television monitors, like the rest of us. Debates of earlier eras managed to attract audiences and interest and with less commotion. The Kennedy-Nixon debates took place in a studio with no audience. Their first debate attracted approximately 70 million, still a record. (The Bush-Gore debate will draw fewer.)

In their 1858 contest for the United States Senate, Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas met out of doors in several locales. Their exchanges lasted for three or four hours and attracted audiences of hundreds of thousands. Paintings show an attentive child of 3 or 4 years of age sitting on the lap of one of the candidates. Lincoln and Douglas took turns in minding him as the other got up to speak.

That child was Thomas Marshall, future vice president of the United States under Woodrow Wilson. Marshall showed an early interest in public affairs. He was serving as governor of Indiana when party bosses tapped him to balance the 1912 Democratic ticket. Marshall almost became president when Wilson suffered a major stroke from which he never recovered. He cultivated his interest in politics and made his mark at a time before there were debate commissions, television, the Internet, or even day-care.

Alvin S. Felzenberg is a former visiting fellow at the Heritage Foundation where he directed its "Mandate for Leadership 2000" project.

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Published by The Washington Times (10/03/00)