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Jewish World Review Oct. 16, 2000 / 17 Tishrei, 5761

Roger Simon

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What exactly does Gore do with all that debate prep time? -- WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. | It is just after the second presidential debate, and I am sitting here in the press room at Wake Forest University surrounded by several hundred reporters.

And I am wondering what Al Gore does with all his debate prep time.

Is it possible for him to learn anything more? I don't think so. There is nothing this guy does not know. Mention a policy, a program or a place, and Gore can give you chapter and verse about it.

The problem he had during his first debate was that he was arrogant and show-offy when he did it.

And after a devastating parody of him and George W. Bush on "Saturday Night Live" -- a parody the Gore campaign screened for Gore -- the vice president knew he had to drop the sighing and all the preachiness, and become more likable.

After 25 years in public office, he has knowledgeable down cold. But likable he is still learning.

So he was very polite in this second debate. He barely attacked, he suppressed the urge to show off, and he was clearly not going for the jugular.

Neither was George W. Bush. He and his campaign were delighted he got through about 40 minutes of foreign affairs questions without a major mistake, and even if he did goof up the number of men he was itching to execute in Texas for the murder or James Byrd Jr. -- it's two not three -- he probably reached or exceded the threshold that Americans consider presidential.

Know-it-alls and intellectuals scare us in America -- Adlai Stevenson never had a chance -- and Bush is sure no know-it-all and sure no intellectual.

What he is is likable. And that can count for a lot.

Truth be told, I think most of the American people think we in the press are nuts when we make profound judgments on a presidential candidate's character and ability based on whether he muffs a question or makes a misstatement during a debate.

Most people watch these debates to confirm a decision they have already made. They have decided to vote for Al Gore or George W. Bush, and they want to see if they had made the right choice.

Some voters, maybe as many as 20 percent, are genuinely undecided and watch these debates to see which candidate will make the better president.

And I think people -- whether they can articulate it or not -- have a feeling, an instinct, as to what a president should look and sound like. And either a candidate measures up to that during a debate or he doesn't.

Usually, both candidates measure up, which is why debates are often inconclusive. I have seen every presidential debate since 1976, and two things have changed dramatically over the years.

First, television has profoundly changed the debates to make them more "exciting" though less informative. When the League of Women Voters ran the debates, they were plodding affairs with long (i.e. five minute) answers and little opportunity for candidates to launch attacks and counter-attacks. Also, a panel of journalists -- dominated by print reporters -- asked the questions.

When TV grabbed control in 1988, answers began to get shorter until they shrunk at one point to just 90 seconds. TV wanted things faster, snappier, more exciting. Candidates were encouraged to attack each other, and the panel of print journalists was eventually replaced with a single TV superstar doing all the asking.

Debates became not only theater, but the post-debate criticism, masquerading under the guise of press analysis, also became theatrical. Candidates are judged on how they answer, not so much what they answer.

Was the candidate properly emotional? Self-assured? Likable? And how was his make-up and his body language?

The plethora of instant polls and focus groups also serve to make citizens feel inadequate or "wrong" if they don't feel the same way about the debaters as the polls say most people do.

Personally, I thought this second debate was excellent. It was low-key, it told you something about the two men, and it was informative.

But it was not good TV.

Thank goodness.

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