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Murder, They Rote

Bush and Gore debated with all the wit and subtlety of rhinos. And who was the loser? Actually, there were 46 million of us.

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The prelude to the debate, which you could catch through the open mike and camera on C-span, was weird enough that it seemed, for a second, that something could happen here, that there was tension rising. "You are going to remain absolutely silent," said Jim Lehrer, with a rictus expression, to his audience. "I have been known to turn around and humiliate people before everyone they have known in the world." His overly brown hair matched his brown tie. "If I hear a cell phone or a pager go off . . ." Boy, oh, boy.

It seemed quite appropriate to set a high-school tone here in the Clark Athletic Center at the University of Massachusetts in Boston. Authority for
authority's sake. Rules. Threats. A logic wholly impenetrable to anyone who tries to figure it out. Indeed, what is the point of a silent audience? Why, then, is there an audience at all?

As in high school, there was some institutional thing being clumsily defended here. You weren't allowed to question too closely what was going on.

Still, the tension, and possibly the illogic, seemed to get my children's attention. They were my captive audience. They were here because I had commanded them to be; then, when that didn't work, I had sulked a bit. ("This is important to me. I watched debates with my father. Fine, I'll watch alone.") There were other shows and videos they would rather have been watching; there was even homework they were, suddenly, desperate to be doing. I said, when I succeeded in getting them in front of the television, how much it meant to me that we would be watching this together.

"I hate America," said my oldest daughter.

My real motive, however, for promoting this family gathering was not to prompt a civics lesson. I was trying, with the only focus group I had at hand, to marshal a body of opinion before the media marshaled its own. We would be like a white-supremacist family, with pure views and beliefs, here in our redoubt before the media could corrupt us.

There's intense pain in my house, and a deep sense that we are the only people so suffering in America. So who are the 46 million people supposedly watching this? Is this rating number like a Milosevic vote?

To each of my children, one soon to be 17, one 13, one 9, and to my willing but sleepy wife, I handed a scratch pad and a pencil, and set the rules: "For any detail, any word choice, any look, anything at all that gives you a good feeling, award a point."

As soon as they appeared, Gore stage right, Bush stage left, each to his solid high-school-like podium on the patriotically decorated stage and then into the preselected camera shot, from middle button to top of head, I knew I was going to have to work hard to keep my personal focus group in place. Even that I was inviting ridicule -- Gore with his morticianlike makeup, I pointed out, and Bush with his natural death look -- did not soften up my crowd. Gore and Bush weren't interesting enough to make fun of. Close scrutiny requires some devotion.

It was bad from the opening. Gore took the pitch and swung with a list. That is how the man speaks and, quite surely, how he thinks. Then Bush responded with monotonous mock-cheerful salesman talk, believing, obviously, that if you keep your inflection affable and even, people will agree with you.

"No," said Susanna, my middle child, involuntarily, meaning the pain of it.

But Steven, my youngest, had pencil poised. I offered some pointers on how he might tell these two utterly unremarkable and lackluster gentlemen, with their poor speaking and presentational abilities, apart. "Give a point to whoever you think looks better."

"Bush isn't breathing very well," said Elizabeth, my oldest.

"Wonderful observation!" I said encouragingly and noted, too, that Bush seemed to have trouble controlling his mouth.

"Wouldn't it be cool if they had to bring out oxygen . . . ?"

"This is so stupid," Susanna said, shaking her head, but her notes were, I'll bet, as good as Candy Crowley's. "Formal and unfriendly," she said of Gore in the opening rounds. "Meek and defensive," she noted about Bush.

"Are we in the wealthiest one percent?" asked my son.

"Mom's sleeping," said Susanna.

"No, I'm not," said my wife.

". . . the man is running on Medi-scare," said Bush, swallowing his punch line but, like a bore, looking around for approval (which was weird, considering the enforced silence of the audience).

". . . under my plan," said Gore, for about the hundredth time.

". . . not only did he invent the Internet, he invented the calculator" -- so take that, said Bush, looking around again for further affirmation (if not a Deke hoot).

"I guess Bush has nicer expressions than Gore," said Elizabeth, reluctantly playing the game.

"Look at the way Bush sips his water," said my son with excitement. "He has his tongue out like a dog."

". . . some of our most precious environmental treasures," Gore was saying at the point I noticed my wife had certainly nodded off.

"This is intolerable, Dad -- you know that, don't you?" said Elizabeth, rebellion rising. "What could possibly be the point of this? Who could get anything out of it?"


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