Watchdog Blog

Gilbert Cranberg: Debates as Campaign Game Shows

Posted at 10:52 am, September 17th, 2008
Gilbert Cranberg Mug

Now that the national party conventions are history the biggest remaining political shows are the debates. The three presidential contests kick off Sept. 26 and conclude Oct. 15. The vice-presidential candidates go at it Oct. 2. I have a bit of time, therefore, to debate with myself about whether to watch any of it.

Debates were a dime a dozen in Iowa leading up to the caucuses. I shunned all of them. Nothing against the candidates or the formats; it’s just my feeling that the qualities tested by a presidential debate have virtually nothing to do with the qualities required by the office.

An effective president must be reasonably intelligent, but the brightest chief executive cannot govern without lots of assistance. Truly smart presidents realize their limitations and where to turn for help. Presidential debates, on the other hand, place a premium on catchy, top-of-the-head comments and comebacks. If you want clues to whether a would-be president would deliberate carefully before making a decision you are not likely to pick up those clues in the pressure-cooker atmosphere of a debate. In fact, governing and debating bear virtually no relationship to each other.

Actually, the relationship is inverse because of the way the superficial often trumps substance on television. Remember how Richard Nixon’s dark whiskers did him in during his confrontation with John F. Kennedy? And George H. W. Bush’s fatal error in the match with Bill Clinton of glancing at his watch?

Yes, tens of millions tune in and many would not otherwise follow the campaign. Much of what passes for information in the candidate exchanges, however, simply isn’t true. It’s become a standard part of next-day debate coverage to attempt to correct the misstatements.

The debates are popular, but so are a lot of game shows. I suspect that there may be some who tune in to the debates for the same reason people look forward to the crashes at auto races.

I probably won’t watch the debates, and, if I don’t, I will read the texts. That’s a much more reliable way to learn what the candidates said. For one thing, you can go back and verify what you think you heard. More important, watching a speaker can be distracting. The eye and the ear do not complement each other; one detracts from the other.

So newspapers can perform an important public service by printing the texts.

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