Murder, They Rote

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?”

It takes a high-school student to get to the elemental high-school question: What are we doing here?

No actual debate was occurring. No toe-to-toe. No real verbal sparring. No live thinking whatsoever.

So what were we measuring or judging?

Possibly just preparation. Indeed, preparation had become a show in and of itself – with Gore’s thirteen ordinary schmoes on the beach in Florida. The debate is the presentation of the prep modules. That’s the method. You memorize 30 to 40 different paragraphs (Gore, with his wonky St. Albans rote memorization skills, is great at this) that come within striking distance of answering any question that can be asked, and bang. It’s plug-and-play. You really can’t make a cock-up.

You could argue that a debate’s real usefulness is as a beauty show about media skills. A JFK-Nixon rehash about who comes off better on television. But this format is obviously a lesser showcase, long ago supplanted by Larry King, Oprah, and Letterman. What media purpose is served, what media finesse is demonstrated, by a guy behind a podium?

For the candidates, the value of these debates is, obviously, free media time. On a cost-per-thousand basis, debates are a hundred-million-dollar public-
interest-coated boondoggle. You can reduce it not just to an economic thing but also to an ego thing. Guys who run for president like to go on television. These two both have mothers watching them. And you can’t get more exposure than an all-network event (even with a disdainful Fox and a waffling NBC). This is a rush.

On the other hand, it’s an incredibly stupid risk. A stumble, a mumble, a look at your watch, the other guy’s shameless mawkishness can compromise the years you’ve put in and all the money you’ve begged. This is not prudent. (Of course, now it’s gotten to be a game of chicken – damned if you do, damned if you don’t.) Which is why we get the safe and banal prep modules.

And then there’s the media itself. One clear message sent by the debates is that there is no real election without the media; we are the instrument and the arbiter of the process. This is our event. Representing the media – Republican at this podium, Democrat at this podium, Media at the podium over there – is Jim Lehrer, making a career out of his role as a presidential-debate moderator and as the face of media authority and probity. Indeed, the cult of McNeil-Lehrer (McNeil was Lehrer’s comparatively more vivid partner before he retired five years ago) is about pretending that there is no media, that the NewsHour delivers news in some old-time, purer fashion. Lehrer is about extreme neutrality. Being a completely boring cipher apparently translates somehow into profundity and turns you into an honest broker. Then, too, he is an acceptable moderator to the candidates because he’s firmly predictable. There will be no surprises from Jim. No Russert shivs. There is also a demographic point. Young people don’t watch debates; older people do. And older people like Jim.

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 other people supposedly watching this? Can it be true? Or is this rating number like a Milosevic vote? Certainly on some level it must be: Forty-six million are not following this with even minimal attentiveness. Not possible. Even the wait for a blooper, which would make this all somehow worthwhile, cannot be sustained by this barren stage.

By the end, I am the only one in my house left here. The children have begged off (with that look that you cannot, dare not, refuse), and the wife is comatose as we roll into the postgame commentary. It seems to me that Jeff Greenfield et al. should have been home with their families, too. They all could use a dose of practical family reality. Instead, they go with the professional harrumph. They must treat this event as though it were meaningful and coherent and instructive, even if it patently is not. Here’s the root of the conspiracy: The candidates endeavor to avoid meaning and coherence and responsiveness (that would
require spontaneity, genuine thinking
on your feet, actual arguing), knowing the media will give them credit for
that anyway.

The immediate sweeping assessment – I’m flipping up the dial from head to head as the wife sleeps – is that Bush won. “Well, he held his own …” “He just came across …” “In the end, people walk away from a debate with a general feeling … well, they held their own … which favors Bush.”

It was, I daresay, scripted ahead of time to go to Bush. That is, win or draw, it would go to Bush. No blooper, then Bush.

The other possible analysis, that we had learned nothing, that we had heard 90 minutes of repetitive press releases, canned lines, and old boilerplate, that both men seemed insincere, charmless, and physically unattractive, was not a possible interpretation.

Even the Times, although reluctant to dub a winner, still treats this like a genuine discussion over issues and approaches. It’s a media thing – we know what they mean even if they haven’t said what they mean.

No one, however, is willing to do the no-clothes analysis.

No one is willing to say this is abusive to the television audience if not the body politic.

Jim Lehrer is the principal, and Gore and Bush are the lame guests who have been invited to be speakers at the assembly (perhaps they’re representatives from the police department or are here to talk about fire safety or CPR), and the news media are all the teachers. Nobody, on pain of losing his job and standing in the community, is able to say to us, the students, What a waste of time, what a crock.

“I can’t do that again,” said my oldest, darkly, as she went off to school. “Don’t ever make me.”


Murder, They Rote