Oct. 14, 2004

A few thoughts on debates:

They are a bore by design. Let me count the ways.

1. The quiet audience: Rules stipulate that audience members must keep their yaps shut on pain of expulsion. This dooms the enterprise from the start. It makes no sense to pack an auditorium with 5,000 people and then tell them to keep quiet. They feel silly, and so do the speakers, who bargle away uncomfortably, wondering why nobody is clapping, laughing or even nodding with approval. Seasoned speakers love large audiences. In a big crowd, even the lamest joke will evoke roars of laughter and the tamest applause line will bring the house down. If one wants quiet attendance, why not invite goldfish?

The talking points: Consultants have ruined the hortatory arts. Both presidential candidates peppered us with canned one-liners, indecipherable factoids, numbers that give only the impression of precision, and mannered gestures (such as the Clintonesque thumb-jab) that seem to suck from the speakers any vestige of introspection or spontaneity.

The interlocutors: Journalists spend years developing the knack for asking obvious questions. This year’s selection was profoundly conventional and not always interesting. The president took the major share of hardballs, but that’s not the real point. There was no sensible discussion of whether we are winning or losing in Iraq; of how the U.S. economy actually is performing; how U.S. policy has created an international atmosphere conducive to the export of liberal democracy – and that’s just a start. I would prefer to have the candidates submit themselves to interrogation by Staten Island cabbies or truck drivers. Better yet, I’d love to see them ask the questions to each other.

It’s time to fix them.

1. Restore the classic one-on-one debate, with a moderator responsible only for keeping time.

Let the audience clap and yell. This is, after all, a sporting event. Treat it as one.

Let candidates bring notes – not speeches, but notes. It’s ridiculous that they should have to waste time figuring out the inoculation rates for minority babies in the third district of Wisconsin. I want to know how they think, not how many empty statistics they can cram into their brains. If they haul some research on stage, fine: That alone could discourage the use of bogus or misleading factoids, and encourage the aspirants to talk more intelligently and feelingly about their political goals and dreams.

Save one final debate for the Saturday before the election. Wouldn’t that be fun?

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