Right after last week's presidential debate, I found myself wondering: Are these things really such a good idea?
The usual talking heads of TV land were chirping away, picking at sound bites, spinning the comments of the spin doctors. What ought to have been a serious discussion about the two major candidates, this nation and the world was quickly perverted into an analysis of the "expectations game" and chatter about the meaning of Al Gore's decision to wear a pale blue tie.
Were these so-called debates really getting in the way of our efforts to try and figure out which one of these candidates ought to be president? (Yes, it would have been dramatically better, intellectually and otherwise, if Ralph Nader had been included. Yet he wasn't, and the polls indicate he doesn't now seem likely to be much of a factor.)
So while you can make a completely moral choice to cast a vote for Nader, or some other candidate, what we are left with is the cold reality that one of these two will be the next president, whether we like it or not, and these joint televised appearances are our only opportunity to measure them against each other. But eventually I realized the debates themselves aren't the main problem.
Naturally, it would have been better if the candidates hadn't insisted on the same rather dull and not very aggressive reporter as the only questioner for all the encounters. The problem was, and is, the media.
Yes, Mommy, I’m bashing the press, even though I are one. We have met the enemy, and he is in the mirror. Possibly the worst thing about being in and of the "media" — and, especially, teaching journalism — is that you have to defend the damn media, all the time, in the name of the Holy First Amendment, so help us Saint John Peter Zenger. But freedom of speech doesn't mean a constitutional requirement to spew stupidity, any more than it means I should wear pink polyester pants.
Yet the media goes right on, swiftly trivializing any discussion of any issue or institution, no matter how large. Example: George W. Bush's lack of experience and knowledge of world events have been a major theme of this campaign.
Anyone who listens to Jay Leno might have expected Dubya to express the opinion that Rice Krispies is the main religion in China. Instead, he talked about foreign affairs in a reasonably articulate, if shallow, way. He was almost, if not quite, as well informed as someone who read the New York Times for a month.
Which was enough, thanks to his rep, to make him look like a Rhodes scholar.
Immediately after the debate, the media gods announced Bush had "won." The instant flash "polls" confirmed this, especially after those polled were told who they were supposed to have thought won. The Texas governor's biggest achievement was failing to look like a Quayle caught in the headlights on foreign policy. But why did this surprise any of us? Bush doesn't, by his own admission, like to read books, but he graduated from both Yale University and Harvard (MBA). His dad ran the country, and sent his son plenty of people to coach him on what to say.
What, however, was really going on behind the well-programmed words? Actually, more than enough to tip us off to the former Yale cheerleader’s true colors. Right from the start, when asked what should be the guiding principle of our foreign policy, Bush said, essentially, our self-interest. Al Gore said our core democratic values. That’s a huge philosophical difference.
Ditto the tone of Bush’s voice and the barely concealed smirk when proclaiming that he would have never sent troops to Haiti or Rwanda, and the tone of contempt he didn't bother to conceal when he talked about "nation-building." For him, foreigners, except perhaps for Western Europeans and those in this hemisphere, are pretty clearly wogs, and in George W. Bush's universe, it ain't our business to worry about wogs without oil or nukes. Especially black ones.
What seems amazing is that this election is in any doubt. Things have literally never been so good for so many. President Clinton has presided over not only unparalleled prosperity, but an amazingly successful foreign policy.
Yes, terrorists evidently did blow a hole in the side of one of our ships last week, killing 17 sailors. But Ronald Reagan, now seen as the most successful foreign policy president of modern times, stupidly billeted hundreds of U.S. Marines in insecure barracks in strife-torn Lebanon, which got 241 of them killed in one blast in October 1983.
Essentially, the only things the nation says it didn’t like about the Age of Clinton were the semen stains and their sequels, and pretty much the only difference between Clinton and Gore is that the vice president doesn't do that.
Progressives have differences with Al Gore. He has a tendency to exaggerate and puff his own accomplishments, as most politicians do. But he also has a fairly distinguished record; in the mid-1980s, he was one of Congress’s top experts on arms control. Yet he has bafflingly seemed not able to make the case for himself or to ask voters: Why would you want to risk starting over with a new, inexperienced team, now?
What he should have done last night was repeat the words Ronald Reagan used exactly 20 years ago in his famous debate with Jimmy Carter: Are you better off than you were four (eight) years ago? If he gets that across, it is hard to see how he can lose.
But if he fails to communicate his biggest selling point, he isn't a leader. And we’ll be back to discuss how to apply for political asylum in Sierra Leone.Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]