Paul Greenberg

For as long as there have been presidential debates on television -- that is, since 1960 -- they have featured gotcha lines. Some years the debates have consisted of little more. Delivering a good one has been the object of the game at least since Lloyd Bentsen sandbagged poor Dan Quayle in 1988. His rebuke would become a standard entry in the lexicon of presidential debates: "Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy, I knew Jack Kennedy, Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy." (Prolonged shouts and applause.)

The kibitzers in the press corps and political buffs in general tend to remember that kind of thing -- even if they forget that Dan Quayle was actually elected vice president that year. Maybe the voters aren't as interested in clever repartee as those who engage in it think we are.

The punch lines may catch the media's attention, and even merit a permanent footnote in the chronicles of American presidential elections. But the people who sit through the debates at home or in the nearest bar may actually be interested in substance, not shine -- in the issues discussed, not the "prolonged shouts and applause" noted in the official transcript of Bentsen-Quayle back in '88.

Electing a president of the United State is no light thing, as obsessed as we all may be with the sporting aspect of the race -- who wins, who loses, how many passes completed or runs batted in. But it's the quality of play, not the fate of the players, that counts most in this game. Did this debate raise or lower the level of civic discourse in the Republic? That is the question that matters. Or should.

Wednesday night's first presidential debate of this largely undistinguished campaign ("No Ideas, Please -- We're American") provided the wonkiest and most revealing contrast yet between the candidates. That's an unusual combination -- and a refreshing one. The candidates actually exchanged views, not just jabs.

Perhaps for the first time in this long, long trek to Election Day 2012, the choices before the American people began to take clear shape, like a great mountain finally emerging in the distance after a long night's march to morning. How account for that? Maybe it was the almost Benedictine rule of silence imposed on the audience. No cheers or applause, boos and hisses, no distractions.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.