• U.S.

What Debates Don’t Tell Us

7 minute read
Walter Shapiro

THEY BEGAN, IN A SENSE, AS A way to fill the TV void left by the quiz-show scandals of the late 1950s. How could the networks re-create those dramatic question-and-answer confrontations that had been so popular with the viewers? Finally, two years after the $64,000 Question was yanked off the air, the format resurfaced in 1960 in a new high-minded incarnation featuring the grandest prize of all — a four-year lease on a pretentiously formal 18th century residence in Washington.

The first contestants were two articulate World War II veterans named Jack and Dick, who had primed for their moment in the spotlight as if going into combat. Instead of being cloistered in isolation booths like the early quiz- show participants, the two men stood behind individual lecterns, as solitary as Hemingway heroes. The questions — posed by a distinguished panel of journalists to reassure viewers that nothing was rigged — demanded both a detailed knowledge of government programs (farm subsidies and the Tennessee Valley Authority) and a travel writer’s mastery of obscure foreign locales (Ghana, Laos and Formosa).

By the narrow calculus of television ratings, the four Kennedy-Nixon debates were a glorious success. But for those who longed for something grander, for rhetoric that might rival the Lincoln-Douglas encounters of 1858, for crystal- clear arguments over relevant issues, for clues about potential for presidential leadership, those inaugural debates were a bitter disappointment. The tenor was set with the first reporter’s question, a classic softball lobbed right at Senator Kennedy: “Why do you think people should vote for you rather than the Vice President?”

Little, alas, has changed in the 32 years since Kennedy and Nixon squabbled interminably about whether to defend two worthless chunks of rock off the coast of China called Quemoy and Matsu. Presidential debates have consistently failed to give voters what they need to make an informed decision: a road map to chart what the next four years would be like with each candidate as President.

For all the talk about testing character and leadership, debates have been about as reliable a predictive tool as newspaper horoscopes. In 1960 neither Kennedy nor Nixon hinted at the looming U.S. involvement in Vietnam. In four debates, they fielded only two questions on civil rights. In 1980 Ronald Reagan got off scot-free when he confidently forecast that his economic elixir of tax cuts and defense hikes would miraculously produce “a balanced budget by 1983, if not earlier.” At least in 1988 Ann Compton of ABC deserved credit for pressing George Bush: “Isn’t the phrase ‘no new taxes’ misleading the voters?” With mangled syntax, Bush responded lamely, “No because that’s — that — I’m pledged to that.”

But no one recalls that telling exchange in the second debate because it came just minutes after moderator Bernard Shaw asked Michael Dukakis the Big Question presumably all America wanted answered: “If Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?” Even with four years of hindsight, that hypothetical query still chills with its smarmy invasiveness and macabre posturing. Politically, of course, Dukakis’ unemotional, uninflected, unyielding answer (“No, I don’t, Bernard”) was in effect his concession speech. But nothing, save the yen for televised blood sports, justified the original question; capital punishment is an issue of only tangential relevance to the duties of any President.

That is the inherent problem with presidential debates: what is remembered is the theatrics, the contrived drama, the carefully rehearsed sound bites. Lost in the spin control are those rare insightful moments that foreshadow what a would-be President actually will do in office, the crises he will face and, yes, the fateful errors of judgment that are to be his legacy.

Buried in the two 1988 presidential debates, for example, are hints at some of the foreign policy missteps that would shape Bush’s four years in office. Bush painted this cheery portrait of emerging freedoms in China less than a year before democracy was massacred in Tiananmen Square: “The changes in China since Barbara and I lived there are absolutely amazing in terms of incentives and partnerships and things of that nature.” No reporter was clairvoyant enough to ask the Vice President to assess the intentions of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. But Bush brought up Iraq himself as a way of dodging a politically tricky question about arms sales to Iran. To the Vice President in 1988 — two years before Iraq invaded Kuwait — stability in the Persian Gulf was a triumph of Reagan-era diplomacy. “Should we have listened to my opponent who wanted to send the U.N. into the Persian Gulf?” Bush asked rhetorically. “Or in spite of the mistakes of the past, are we doing better there? How is our credibility with the GCC ((Gulf Cooperation Council)) countries on the western side of the gulf? Is Iran talking to Iraq about peace? You judge on the record.”

Bush would probably prefer not to be judged on his record of prophecy regarding Iraq and China. But at least those subjects were raised. What comes through from the 1988 debates is the stunning irrelevancy of most of the exchanges. Never mentioned was the fast-escalating savings-and-loan crisis. Not a word was devoted to the economic challenge from Japan. There was never more than a hint, even from Dukakis, that paper prosperity might soon give way to remorseless recession.

Like quiz contestants nervously blurting out wrong answers, some incumbent Presidents have lost debates because of pressure-of-the-moment gaffes. Jerry Ford made his bizarre 1976 declaration that Poland was not a communist country and foolishly stuck to it for five days because he misremembered a briefing on the Helsinki Accords, which implied recognition of Soviet control of Eastern Europe. Did it really make substantive — as opposed to political — difference that in 1980 Jimmy Carter blurted out that he had been discussing arms control with his precocious 13-year-old daughter Amy?

MANY PREVIOUS DEBATES have been decided by a flick of the wit, a clever one- liner that would have political resonance long after the substance of the debate was forgotten. Ronald Reagan, no surprise, was a master at these prerehearsed quips. Facing the beleaguered Carter in their single 1980 debate, Reagan deftly showed he could be a reassuring presence, an equal to an incumbent President, by artfully deploying that carefully calibrated put-down line, “There you go again.”

But in 1984 Reagan stumbled through his first debate with Walter Mondale, losing the train of his argument, mangling phrases and making absurd claims (example: he did not attend religious services because “I pose a ((security)) threat to several hundred people if I go to church”). This performance prompted fears that at 73 Reagan was too old and doddering for the office. Given the record of his second term (his fogginess on the details of < Iran-contra, Nancy Reagan’s astrologer), these turned out to be legitimate concerns. But they vanished in the second debate as soon as Reagan delivered his practiced crack that he had no plans to “exploit for political purposes my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” What was ironic was that Reagan’s closing statement in that same debate, a scarcely coherent ramble about a trip down the Pacific Coast Highway, turned out to be a telling illustration of the vagaries of the President’s mind.

Part of the problem rests with the way all debates since 1960 have been organized. Multiple questions and time-limited answers (no candidate has ever been granted more than three minutes to respond; this year the maximum is two minutes) do not lend themselves to serious exploration of issues. Also, reporters have often been maladroit questioners — precious minutes were squandered in the second 1988 debate when Bush and Dukakis were asked to name their heroes.

After the 1960 debates, Douglass Cater of the Reporter magazine — one of the panelists — noted how quickly Kennedy and Nixon “mastered its special form of gamesmanship” this new political medium required. “No matter how narrow or broad the question,” Cater wrote, “each of them extracted his last second of allotted image projection in making his response.” If anything, the candidates have grown more adroit over the years. That is why these political quiz shows have come to resemble that other icon of the TV age — the Super Bowl: overhyped, overcoached and ultimately underwhelming.

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