The third presidential debate is fast approaching. The date is Wednesday, October 15, at Hofstra University, in New York. The moderator of the event will be Bob Schieffer, pictured on the right, the Chief Washington correspondent of CBS News and host of Face the Nation.
After watching the previous two engagements between Sens. McCain and Obama, plus the one between Sen. Biden and Gov. Palin, I have been asking myself why these contests invariably leave me frustrated and disappointed. The most obvious answer is the fact that the candidates, as often as not, answer a question that has not even been asked and find other ingenious ways to dodge the most substantive aspects of tough issues. What is billed as a "debate" is, in the end, no more a critical confrontation of policies and ideas than "pep talks" during half-time in opposing locker rooms at a high school football game.
If you think that I am exaggerating, then consider how Coach McCain entreats us, his exhausted players, to take the field with him and to reform Washington, by cleansing the system of corrupt lobbyists and the influence of special interests. All we have to do is to FIGHT! Coach McCain assures us – and we are asked to believe him – that he knows how to WIN! All we have to do is to give it our best during the second half of play. Why, we can score winning touchdowns in healthcare, energy, and social security/medicare without even prioritizing them! Rah, rah, rah!
Coach Obama's comments are also "rousing." They are as if, in a school district which is collapsing from a mountain of debt, he promises that we will soon be disposing of our rag-tag uniforms for spectacular new ones, transported to the game in a comfortable, air-conditioned 2008 bus, and guaranteed a place in the State Finals! Yes sir, this is "change we can believe in." Money is no object either; after all, we are the richest and best team in the world! Three cheers!
Maybe the word for which I am searching to describe all this is "surreal." Which brings me to my main point. In the midst of this empty, quixotic chatter, a moderator routinely sits there as if he is a network gelding. If he says anything except to read the questions, it is to instruct the candidates to take care to abide by the rules of the game on which they previously agreed. Big deal! How dare anyone exceed the inconsequential two minute/one minute time-frame!
For the life of me, I do not understand why presidential debates should be structured for sound bites instead of ideas. Nor do I understand why journalists must always be the moderators and primary persons to tell us what we have just heard the candidates say. I am sick of it! Are television journalists the only ones who know how to ask questions? Are they the only ones who can think critically? Are they even a primary source of political enlightenment? No disrespect intended, but who are Jim Lehrer, Gwen Ifel, and Tom Brokaw? Aside from knowing how to read a script that they may or may not have written, what claim to fame do any of them have in the matter of serious political thought and commentary?
Whatever else one may say about media personalities, they all tend to live in the same bubble. This means that there are questions that they will never ask because of their personal and/or professional bias ("Sen. Obama, would you criticize Sen. McCain if he had served on an educational board with David Duke? If not, would you be in error overlooking Sen. McCain's poor judgment? If you would in fact level criticism in these circumstances, why should he not then criticize you for your association with Bill Ayers and Bernadette Dohrn, two unrepentant domestic terrorists?"). There are also questions it will never dawn upon journalists to ask because of their intellectual limitations (Sen. McCain, which thinker in the history of thought best describes your understanding of the nature and destiny of humanity?)
The point is that media personalities are not the only ones who know how to ask a question. Lawyers, clergy, economists, and military thinkers can do so as well. In fact, I would rather hear an incisive, hard-hitting question from a retired military leader regarding United States military initiatives than from any journalist in the business. Wouldn't you? The same can be said about attorneys regarding matters of legal policy, especially constitutional issues; economists concerning the merits of the Paulson Plan and the state of the American economy; and clergy on issues of religion and morality. Would such a diverse panel of experts not enhance the credibility, not to say the excitement and informational nature, of the experience?
Candidates for high office should be obliged to answer questions. I want them to face the best and the brightest thinkers on each and every problem confronting us as a nation. The stranglehold that the media have on these debates should end. To think that someone like Katie Couric or Charlie Gibson is an essential staple in our national discourse would be entirely laughable but for the fact that the situation signals an appalling lack of intellectual and moral substance. Perhaps sooner or later we will be treated to a presidential debate where Barbara Walters is the moderator, asking the candidates how they would feel as a tree in the midst of a nuclear holocaust. God help us.
October 14, 2008