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Jewish World ReviewJuly 6, 2001 / 15 Tamuz, 5761

Roger Simon

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That's debatable


http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- THE last time I saw Warren Steibel he was pacing around a huge auditorium in Houston trying to put together a presidential debate.

Steibel, a big, bear-like man, was the producer and director of William F. Buckley Jr.'s "Firing Line." Steibel always dressed as disreputably as possible, perhaps to offset Buckley's nattiness.

Steibel's shirt was always untucked, and one could often tell the last meal he ate by examining the front of it. On this morning in 1988, he was dressed in a tan golf shirt and faded blue pants, and he was talking about his concept of the debate.

"I want a debate that looks like a pageant," he said. "Like the pageant in Atlantic City. The Miss America Pageant. If I could get these guys to walk down a runway, I would have them walk down a runway."

As it turned out, the Republican candidates in 1988 -- George Bush, Bob Dole, Alexander Haig, Jack Kemp, Pete DuPont and Pat Robertson -- did not exactly resemble beauty-pageant contestants, though Steibel did manage to make them walk out on stage as if they were in Atlantic City. He considered it a personal triumph.

"I keep telling them the same thing, and they won't listen: Forget about the cameras. Relate to the audience. If you relate to the audience here, it will look better to the audience at home. But they don't believe it," he tells me. "They've got these media consultants. And so they think they can relate directly to the home audience."

He shakes his head. "Who do they think they are? Bob Hope?"

They were very definitely not Bob Hope. But this seemed like a good time to ask him what purpose debates really serve because governing is nothing like debating.

At least it shouldn't be. Debating is about instant response, projecting to the audience and regurgitating memorized positions. Once in office, instant response can often be a disaster. Instead, the president assembles his team of experts, weighs data, considers options. And he does it without a TV camera peering at him. So what do debates really tell us about how these men would function as president?

"As an American, I get a chance to see these candidates and see whether they are plastic," Steibel says. "Are they real? Are they fake? You also get an opinion of them in a truly competitive situation. How well do they do on their feet? Nothing is as good as reading a book, but sometimes TV can get you so interested that you go home and read the book. It's the same way with a political debate: The people know it's a competition, so they tune in for a look.

And in subsequent months, they read newspapers and concentrate more to form an opinion."

And, ideally, that is what happens. Debates hook people into the political process. But considering the vast amount of time the candidates spend on preparing for the performance aspects of the debate (Where should I look? How should I sound? What should I wear?), aren't we really just seeing how well they can put together a TV act?

"That's a credible judgment," Steibel says. "But people are the sum of their experiences and their lives. You look in their eyes and you see their sum. You see their character. And TV displays their character and personality. It is not the best medium for analyzing substantive issues. But all of politics is gladiatorial. A competition. And to be president, you have to be competitive. To be a president in our times, you have to have some television magic to get elected."

But what happens once we elect the guy who has television magic and then he has to take office?

"Then you hope he has the intelligence to have good people on his staff to run the country," Steibel says.

I should have remembered all that. (I put it all in a book I wrote on the 1988 election.) But when Steibel called me out of the blue last week, I had forgotten it.

He said that he was now producing and directing a show called "DebateDebate" that appears on 180 PBS stations around the country. What he does is invite people to come to New York and debate anything.

"So come on up and debate," he said. "It will be good publicity for your book."

What are you debating? I asked.

"Um, we are debating," he said, and I could hear papers being shuffled. "We are debating, 'Has George W. Bush Gone Too Far to the Right?' So will you come and debate?"

I guess so, I said.

"Great," he said. "See you next week."

Wait, wait, I said. Don't you want to know which side I am on? "Doesn't matter," he said.

And I realized that to a professional, it doesn't. To Steibel debates are about revealing character and personality through "gladiatorial" competition. To him, debates are still about Miss America.

Which is why I might show up wearing a tiara.



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