George Washington. Abraham Lincoln. Franklin Roosevelt. John F. Kennedy. Ronald Reagan. Who among these men would answer, with a straight face, a question posed by a snowman?
One wonders about the seriousness of a nation that considers the YouTube debate hosted by CNN a success and a triumph. Countless commentators have fawned over how refreshing it was to replace those stuffy old reporters with videos of real people with real concerns. Michael Finnegan and Matea Gold of the LA Times gushed, "Free-wheeling video questions from ordinary citizens put a fresh spark into the staid ritual of presidential debates this week, with everything from a talking snowman to a guy cradling a rifle he called 'my baby'." The reporters then said the debate was more like American Idol than Meet the Press. The implication was that this is a good thing.
The entertainment value of the format for the debate received high praise. A Philadelphia Inquirer editorial praised the debate, saying, "...a debate is entertaining, more people will watch—and that's a good thing."
It is certainly a good thing for American citizens to take an interest in the political process, and many were celebrating because they were more entertained than usual. A Boston Globe editorial declared that the old way of debating was a "recipe for dull television." The new way: "engaging" and "lively"! But is new always good? Do we undermine serious discourse when the emphasis is on entertainment? When questions are posed by animated snowmen, men holding automatic weapons, and lesbian couples playing "gotcha" do we somehow trivialize the process and, perhaps, the of fice of President itself?
Have Americans become so obsessed with being entertained, that fewer and fewer of us are willing to tolerate sober-minded political debate and reflection. Do we now require a circus; something happening in all three rings, with a freak show on the side?
If so, will there come a day when the American people, deadened by entertainment culture, are simply no longer mature enough to take seriously their civic obligations? Will we, in time, become so addicted to entertainment and pleasure that the hard work of political discourse will be beyond us? Will our attention span be so short that we start to zone out after fifteen seconds unless a talking snowman catches our attention?
And what about the dignity of the office of President of the United States? In the YouTube debate, there appeared to be a lack of seriousness looming over the whole event. Presidential campaigns are becoming less and less dignified as candidates do anything and everything for attention and approval. Some of the video questions amounted to little more than rants issued from the computer user's basement. The first question of the night began, "What's up! I'm running out of tape, I have to hurry!" There was little decorum or restraint in many questions; the attitude was "let it all hang out."
Thoughtful, Meet the Press type debates have been belittled over the last few days by many commentators who were enchanted by this entertaining show. One popular sentiment was that candidates will be forced to take real people's problems more seriously when confronted by the widow of a fallen soldier, or a homosexual couple, or a person dying of cancer. While it is undoubtedly true that these human encounters do change the feel of a debate, that's not necessarily always a good thing. Sometimes mature and strong leadership needs to step back from the immediacy of an individual's suffering and see their problem in the context of the larger whole, with a mind toward the common good. Let's be honest. The President's job is not to be there to tend every Alzheimer's patient, teach every child, and arbitrate every labor dispute. The President is not supposed to solve every problem in America. Families, local communities, and local governments are often better equipped for dealing with personal tragedy.
When standing before an image of someone who is suffering, the natural reaction is to say, "Listen, I want to help you. Here's what I can do," even when on careful reflection one realizes that may not be good national policy. It is tempting for politicians who can wield the levers of power, to see themselves as the Savior who will wipe away every tear and heal every hurt. But, lest we forget, a government that is big enough to heal every hurt and right every wrong is one that is big enough to dictate every aspect of our existence.
Soon the Republicans will have their own YouTube debate on CNN. One can only hope that they will insist that the event be conducted with more dignity and decorum. When an animated snowman is seen as a groundbreaking advance in political discourse, one is left to wonder if the candidates who emerge successfully from that process will be qualified to serve as the leader of the free world. If we continue down this path, it may not be long before "Hail to the Chief" will be replaced with "Send in the Clowns."