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Jewish World Review Oct. 2, 2003 / 5 Tishrei, 5764

Roger Simon

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It doesn't matter what you say. just say it quickly | I can't remember how many Democratic presidential debates I have been to this year.

Some have been authorized by the party and some have not. Some have featured all the candidates and some have not. Some have been on a single theme and some have been wide-ranging.

But they have all shared one quality: It is difficult to remember a single thing about them.

Take the debate I went to last week in New York. At two hours, it was the longest debate yet. But there were 10 candidates — and they had to share their time with three panelists and one moderator — so how much total time did any candidate get to speak? Six minutes? Seven?

The candidates were told they had to keep their answers to one minute in the beginning of the debate and to 30 seconds at the end.

But can anybody make a reasonable case for any serious or complicated topic or issue in 30 or even 60 seconds?

(Debate answers used to be much longer before TV starting controlling debates. TV insists on short answers because it keeps the show moving along. The needs of good TV always trump the needs of good government.)

But there is a more fundamental question: Are debates the best format in which to see the candidates?

The candidates would much prefer forums, at which they go on stage one by one, deliver a 20-minute address and take questions from the audience.

But the media much prefer debates because debates are thought to be more exciting. And by more exciting, I mean they have a higher probability for disaster.

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Most people watch presidential debates for the same reason most people watch the Indy 500: To see who crashes and burns.

From the beginning, televised debates were remembered for their disasters rather than any substantive issues.

In 1960, Richard Nixon's makeup looked lousy on TV and Nixon lost. (It looked fine to the reporters in the TV studio, who thought Nixon had won the debate. But they soon learned that how a candidate looked on TV was what counted. Nearly 90 percent of the voting public watched one of the Nixon-Kennedy debates that year.)

In 1976, Gerald Ford stumbled badly when he assured the world there was "no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe."

In 1988, Dan Quayle was on his way to winning his vice presidential debate against Lloyd Bentsen when he stumbled into a trap by comparing himself to Jack Kennedy.

The same year, Michael Dukakis doomed whatever chances he might have had for the presidency by not showing sufficient "passion" when CNN's Bernard Shaw asked him if he would favor the death penalty for his wife's imaginary rapist and killer. ("Bernie Shaw asked him the wrong question," one Democratic consultant said afterwards. "He should have asked him how he would feel if his favorite regional planner was raped and murdered.")

In 1992, George Bush had been caught impatiently looking at his wristwatch during a town-meeting style debate, which reinforced the notion that he did not care about ordinary people.

The odd thing about modern debates, however, is that there is no pretense that they are anything except pure theater. It is one of the few moments in modern politicking when the campaigns pull back the curtain and tell everybody they can take a look at the man back there pulling the levers and flipping the switches. And the public seems to enjoy it immensely.

Though most candidates for president have spent their lifetimes shaping and addressing issues, the public finds it quite natural that these men should have to spend days rehearsing before they can go out on stage and talk about the same issues.

The candidates memorize questions and answers from huge briefing books, the better to regurgitate the answers when debate time comes.

The public knows in advance, in other words, that the debates are solely about performance.

We know that debates have nothing to do with finding out how a candidate will react as president. (Presidents don't make decisions with 30-second stopwatches running or with cameras in their faces).

Debate performance has little to nothing to do with how well a candidate actually grasps an issue. What a debate really measures is how well a candidate can demonstrate — rather than actually possess — knowledge, passion and concern.

And in terms of presidential campaigning, seeming to know something is much more important than actually knowing it.

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