Ninety minutes and you're President?

Posted: Oct 13, 2004 12:00 AM

It's frightening when you think about how style has come to trump substance in our political debates.

It's been that way since 1960 and the first televised debates between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. Dubbed the great debates, the Kennedy-Nixon debates made politics as much about fame and celebrity as the issues themselves. Or as historian Daniel J. Boorstin tersely observed, television transformed the presidential debates into "a kind of political quiz show . remarkably successful in reducing great national issues into trivial dimensions."

In the 44 years since, television has become incredibly successful in using images to reduce complex issues into sound bites. The presidential debates we remember are those where our demagogues manage to shine. Who can forget Ronald Reagan gazing into the camera in 1980 and imploring the viewers to ask themselves, "are you better off than you were four years ago?" What do we remember - or even know - about Lloyd Bentsen other than that during the 1988 vice-presidential debate he snorted at Dan Quayle, "Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you are no Jack Kennedy." It was a perfect sound bite - short, succinct, terse and guaranteed to solicit a knee-jerk reaction from viewers. That remark carried the day, though not the election, for Bentsen.

Of course, such remarks have nothing to do with issues. They hardly have anything to do even with language. Since the advent of televised debates, presidential campaign ads have gone from 30 minutes to 30 seconds. Our modern leaders ascend as images, as suggestions. They act, speak and think in televisions terms.

Not surprisingly then, much of the analysis following the first round of presidential debates emphasized President Bush's perceived crankiness. As a statement issued by Kerry adviser Richard Holbrooke observed, "the president smirked and scowled and refused to directly answer the hard questions." A New York Post article similarly observed, "Bush got caught by the camera at times scowling or looking peeved as he listened to Kerry's remarks, and the president even seemed to make some audible sighs, shades of Al Gore in 2000." A PBS commentary focused on President Bush's body language: "If you read the transcript, you might not think that it was a clear-cut Kerry victory. But if you saw the split screen and watched it, I mean, people I think came away with a far more positive attitude toward Kerry than they did toward the president."

Of course, the president had good reason to seem put upon. He's in the middle of navigating a war. Iran and North Korea - countries whose leaders sit around thinking of ways to destroy America - are developing nuclear weapons. American soldiers are dying in Iraq. And the president's chief opponent wants to somehow pretend that our presence in the Middle East is something other than a necessary and indispensable part of the war on terror. So forgive the president if he rolled his eyes and seemed annoyed when Kerry suggested that we need to pull out of Iraq and rely more on international coalitions. Sure, it's a nice image. And apparently it played well. Following the debate, a CNN/Gallup poll reported that 53 percent of the viewers ranked Kerry the winner, while only 37 percent thought Bush came out on top. But what Bush clearly understands is the utter futility on relying on the United Nations to disarm our enemies. As Bush put it, the best way to win the war on terror is "to never waver." Sage advice given Kerry's chronic flip flopping and the mixed messages it sends to our troops, and the world.

But alas, these rousing points fall by the wayside in a debate forum that distills complex issues into a 90-minute personality test. Frightening indeed when, even during a war, our presidential debates are little more than performance art.