The myths of debating

Posted: Aug 24, 2000 12:00 AM
WASHINGTON -- One of the absurd conceits of our political class is its members' belief that they greatly relish nothing more during a campaign than a good old-fashioned political debate. Bush vs. Gore, bring the boys on! Let the cameras record the epic struggle. Every voter in the land will be taking notes before the television screen. Another of the political cognoscenti's absurd beliefs is that the capacity to posture and deceive in debate is an essential attribute for being a good president. Actually, judgment and leadership are the essential ingredients of a good president. It matters not at all if a candidate for president has memorized every item in the Federal Register and knows the capital of Turkmenistan. If a vast knowledge of obscure details within and without the federal government were necessary for earning the keys to the White House, Americans would be better served by every neurotic professor of political science in Academe. If clever one-liners were essential for presidential greatness, the present nominees might be Jay Leno and David Letterman. Yet those who follow politics in this great republic are now smacking their lips in anticipation of this fall's debates. Candidates for governorships and Congress are burning the midnight oil in hopes of finding lethal statistics to hurl at their opponents or a clever line that will cause an opponent's pants to fall down. Who knows how deep into state and local government the delusion of candidates' debates has spread? Are candidates for county sheriff now debaters? How about justices of the peace? Of course, the world series of candidates' debates will pit the governor of Texas against the vice president of the United States, George against Al. Which one of these analytical giants will steal the march on his opponent by coming on stage with a disarming gesture, perhaps a brilliant gambit: Al wears only earth colors and no tie! George brings his golf clubs! The political cognoscenti are avid for such exciting and instructive moments. Most of them, even many Republicans, hold to the opinion that Al has all the facts and figures neatly filed in his marmoreal head. While George was running his oil companies and that baseball team Al was memorizing the names of government agencies, social problems and herbicides. He was poring over monographs about the need to save America from the automobile and from credit cards. My guess is that Al is already miles ahead of George in the debate over fragrances. The anti-fragrance movement has got to be a growing constituency in the Democratic Party. It is only a matter of time before those Democrats hollering out there on "the cutting edge" call for class-action lawsuits against Big Deodorant. If you follow my drift, you will by now have grasped that I do not share the widespread enthusiasm for candidates' debates. The candidates' debating skills are as irrelevant to the presidency as might be their capacity for yodeling or for skateboarding. Yet I have a more pungent reason for depreciating presidential debates, particularly the impending ones between Al and George. Al is a proven liar. The two candidates will not be debating before an audience that can respond to Al with Bronx cheers and spitballs when he brags that he invented the soy bean or warns that the Office of Management and Budget has calculated that George's tax cuts will lead to nuclear winter. Debate, properly conducted, assumes some respect for the truth. Certain standards of honesty are essential for an intelligent and constructive give-and-take. Yet Al -- whether alone on a stump, talking about his war record, or in debate with Bill Bradley, talking about Bradley's promised health care reforms -- simply lies. The lies have a long enough lifespan that they transformed the recent primary campaigns into echo chambers for Al's fantasies and crude allegations. The press apparently catches on to Al's lies only slowly and then never holds Al accountable for the attendant claptrap. He thoroughly plastered Bill Bradley with lies. Honorable and thoughtful man that Bradley is, he could not get the campaign's discussion back to reality before he was doomed. Bill Clinton has remained president by artful use of Herr Goebbels' Big Lie. Al has campaigned for the presidency with an oratorical variant, to wit, the Little Lie, scores, perhaps hundreds of little lies lilting through the public discourse, scaring hell out of the less astute members of the electorate and, sad to say, the press. My advice for cleaning up politics this fall is for George to refuse to debate Al. I do not expect George to accept my entire critique of political debates. Yet he could announce himself the true reformer in this presidential year. He could say he will not aid in the spreading of lies. Thus he will not debate Al. Alone on the campaign trail Al spreads quite enough lies. Tempted by an opponent in the debate venue, Al becomes a liar nonstop. This is another White House scandal that George can do something about. George should offer to debate only Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan. Both are serious about their ideas and much more trustworthy than Al, who is a liar -- or do I repeat myself?