"Contrary to popular belief," historian Daniel J. Boorstin once wrote, "Barnum's great discovery was not how easy it was to deceive the public, but rather how much the public enjoyed being deceived. Especially if they could see how it was being done. They were flattered that anyone would use such ingenuity to entertain them."
When it comes to presidential debates, the candidates are certainly ingenious when it comes to entertaining us.
The candidates know that debates are not about demonstrating how they would actually behave as president.
They know debates are about showmanship, stagecraft and acting. Which is why Barack Obama and John McCain are spending much of this week rehearsing for their first debate on Friday.
If you were a Martian, you might find it odd that presidential candidates have to rehearse for presidential debates. After all, both Obama and McCain have spent nearly all their adult lives studying serious issues and have spent the past 19 months talking about them on an almost daily basis. But this week, they will stand on mock sets and debate against mock opponents.
All possible questions and all possible answers (they hope) have been compiled in massive briefing books by their staffs, and the only trick is for the candidates to regurgitate those answers while looking spontaneous and sincere. May the best actor win.
The press buys into this. When the debate is over, reporters will write their stories evaluating how well the candidates performed. The stories will be little different than theater reviews. And why should they be different, considering debates are all about theater?
Even the props are important.
Back on Nov. 19 of last year, the Commission on Presidential Debates sent out a press release announcing the dates of the debates and stating: "In each debate except the town meeting format (i.e., the second presidential debate), the candidates will be seated at a table with the moderator."
But that is not going to happen. On Friday, the candidates will stand behind lecterns, reportedly at the insistence of John McCain. One reason for this might be to show that McCain can stand up and perform for 90 minutes just as vigorously as Obama can.
Another reason, however, might be height: When Mike Dukakis debated the much taller George H.W. Bush in 1988, Dukakis had a little ramp that led to a platform hidden behind his lectern, so that when he stood on the platform he looked taller. (His campaign wanted the ramp so the TV cameras couldn't capture Dukakis stepping up onto the platform.) McCain is about a half-foot shorter than Obama, and McCain might want to use the same device.
Sound silly? In debates, there is no such thing as silly. There is only stagecraft.
Take stand-ins. Those are the people who play the role of the opponent during the debate rehearsals. They have briefing books, too, and they are supposed to behave like real opponents.
So real, the campaigns now believe, that the stand-ins also have to look like real opponents.
Thus, the McCain campaign felt the need to consider finding a black stand-in to play the role of Barack Obama. According to The Wall Street Journal, McCain was going to use Michael Steele, the former lieutenant governor of Maryland.
For his vice presidential debate, Joe Biden will use Jennifer Granholm, governor of Michigan, as his stand-in to play the role of Sarah Palin.
Of course, candidates are going to use people from their own party to play their opponents, but there is nothing in the background of Steele to suggest he is much like Obama on the issues and nothing in the background of Granholm to suggest she is much like Palin on the issues.
But one is black and one is a woman, and the campaigns want as realistic a dress rehearsal as possible. (After the Wall Street Journal story ran, the McCain campaign said Steele was no longer being considered. But the campaign would not say who it was considering. Maybe Alan Keyes or J.C. Watts should expect a call.)
Debates are some of the few moments in politicking when the campaigns pull back the curtain and invite people to take a look. "See?" the campaigns say. "This is how we stage the show. All for your entertainment!"
And, apparently, nobody finds any of it odd. Though I think you might have a hard time finding a Martian who would believe it.