PAPER CUTS/Judith Gorman

It's Debatable

If we've learned anything from the presidency of George W. Bush, it is that what you see on the campaign trail is not necessarily what you get in the Oval Office. A fiscally conservative isolationist can turn into a warmongering spendthrift in little more than the time it takes to recite the oath of office. Who knew?

Certainly not the electorate. The information we receive about presidential candidates is as carefully parsed, meticulously scripted, and lavishly produced as any summer blockbuster movie, and just about as truthful.

This week the Bush campaign began airing their first three commercials: gauzy slo-mo shots of Mr. Bush looking vaguely presidential, hymns to happy heterosexual couples who still have jobs, soldiers handing out Hershey bars to Iraqi children, and a particularly pernicious appeal to patriotism showing the American flag flying in front of the ruined World Trade Center. The message is that Mr. Bush "knows what America needs." The question that raises is, if the president knows what we need, why hasn't he given it to us? Or does that only happen in the second term?

Political commercials, and, for that matter, political speeches, are not only uninformative, they are counter-informative. They mislead voters and fail to supply the kind of substantive information required to make informed decisions.

This wasn't always true. For much of our nation's history, candidates were called upon to serve their country based on a distinguished career of public service. The character and experience of those individuals were a matter of record, which was a good thing because campaigning or any other direct appeal for votes was considered to be in extremely poor taste, akin to pandering. Not anymore.

It wasn't until the summer of 1858 that candidates actually confronted each other on issues face-to-face, and that was only because Abraham Lincoln followed Stephen Douglas around the state of Illinois, heckling him from the audience at political rallies.

The two senatorial candidates faced each other at seven formal debates, one in each of the Illinois congressional districts. Each debate lasted for three hours and focused on a single topic. The first candidate spoke for one hour, the second for one and a half hours, and rebuttal lasted for half an hour. The candidates alternated going first.

Of course we don't have anything even approaching that standard nowadays. The attention span of the audience is too short, and in any case, with the requisite commercial interruptions, debates would last from morning 'til night.

In fact, modern political debates are not debates at all. A debate is a contest in which the affirmative and negative sides of a proposition are advocated by opposing speakers. Real debaters are required to collect information on a particular issue, marshal an argument, and defend a position with facts and reason. Real debating demands a specific set of skills, not the least of which is the capacity to maintain a consistent train of thought. For some candidates, including our own commander-in-chief, that train has already left the station.

The so-called presidential debates are panel discussions, a bastard born of the shotgun marriage between news and entertainment, presented by the Commission on Presidential Debates, and sponsored by such neutral parties as AT&T, Anheuser-Busch, Lucent Technology, Philip Morris Companies, and 3Com.

These events are political commercials presented live, tightly-scripted, quasi-reality shows in which candidates offer truncated versions of their stump speeches. Questions are prepared by the media and posited by various news anchors, and the candidates are diligently prepared for their responses by weeks of rehearsals, a sort of moot court for the effectively mute.

John F. Kennedy is widely believed to have beaten Richard Nixon in 1960 because he "won" the debates, based on better writers, better hair, and a closer shave. In fact good hair, an engaging smile, and an imposing stature have come to be requisites for a presidential aspirant, as if the candidates were vying for the position of America's Next Top Model rather than America's top executive.

Aren't we entitled to real debates? There are eight months left in the presidential campaign season, almost enough time to produce a baby, and certainly enough time for the presidential candidates to visit each of the 50 states, rent a town hall or high school gym or bowling alley, and engage in a series of live face-to-face debates on the issues that matter to the electorate.

Real debates would qualify as news events, which the broadcast media are obligated to carry, making political commercials superfluous and leveling the playing field in terms of campaign war chests.

This is, of course, a naïve suggestion, and I daresay that few presidential candidates would be willing to open themselves to such public scrutiny. But a refusal in itself would be revelatory. And maybe, just maybe, voters would be able to see who the candidates really are, without the intervention of handlers or surrogates or makeup artists or media filters. We would find out not only what the candidate "knows" about America's problems, but what he (or she) intends to do to solve them.

Judith Gorman is a writer in Vermont.

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