I watched about 40 minutes of the presidential debate last night and walked away shaking my head over the state of discourse and the odd role of media. Seems to me the differences in the candidates are pretty large and become pretty clear the more you hear them talk about what’s important to them and the way they would go about going after their particular agendas.
In my view it was Jim Lehrer who lost ground. He is the well-respected news anchor from PBS, but on this night it seemed his chief job was to goad the candidates into face-to-face confrontation, hoping for sparks that make for good TV. He kept asking the candidates to say something directly to the other, hoping mostly for those sparkling exchanges we love so much on ESPN and Crossfire-type shows, where combatants get snippy and stop the dialogue and begin engaging in belittling each other with smirks and “can you believe this idiot” facial grimaces. And this morning in the Washington Post, Dana Milbank paints the picture of what she calls “tepid” responses that frustrated Lehrer, as if Lehrer was forced to badger the candidates in order to get some substance from these guys. And I understand that politicians avoid specifics and questions so reporters pursue and push. But it’s one thing to push for deeper and better answers, and another to push for the emotional confrontation that makes for good TV.
Maybe that’s who we are anymore, unsatisfied as we gather at the national arena of political gladiators, the TV. Ideas, those things that have consequences and rewrite history, aren’t nearly enough. Let’s have our visceral confrontations, and pick the fighter we like best. And I’m not naive enough to think personality and emotional patterns are irrelevant, and many a smart man or woman has been destroyed by personality quirks and emotional outbursts, but still, what these men think and what action they will take is what is at stake. Must they badger and squabble at each other, TV hosts goading them as if that’s the point, in order for us to grasp what we need to grasp?
Call me old-fashioned, but in the film The Great Debaters, set in the mid-1930s, a small all-black college from Texas takes on the big Ivy League Champions from Harvard in a debate that was nationally broadcast on radio. The topic was race, so the stakes are not small. As they debated in full hearing of the nation, can you imagine the moderator trying to goad them into arguing face to face? Somehow it appears absurd, because it would drop the entire plane of discussion, robbing it of the dignity demanded by the severity of the issue. If the two teams had stood jaw to jaw interrupting each other, personally belittling the opposing side not with sharp thought, but with visible facial contempt and disdain, etc., would the frank superiority of the winning argument have been nearly as clear?
We talk about the need to end partisan bickering, but on national TV, we goad our candidates toward what Milbank in the Post calls “blood-letting.” And when she mentions we finally got to it, “blood-letting” is without doubt a relief, almost the debate’s reason for being. Again, I’m just out of step with the times, I suppose, but I’ll be glad when the blood-letting is over.
Enough of that…