The Republicans candidates for president did a respectable job presenting themselves at the New Hampshire debate on Monday. But there was one person on stage most viewers must have wished they could vote out -- the moderator. John King was bumptious, bullying, and, with his "this or that" game-show gimmick, stupefyingly trivial.
Isn't it members of the press who usually complain that candidates dodge the really important issues? Yet here was a CNN honcho wasting valuable airtime with questions like "BlackBerry or iPhone?" while the candidates itched to return to the deficit, taxes, health care, and foreign policy.
These cutesy queries were designed, King assured us, to "learn a little bit more about these candidates and their personalities." Please. "Regular or spicy"? And it was to save time for this that King scolded the candidates about letting their answers extend past 60 seconds?
King set ground rules more appropriate for a haiku contest than a political discussion. Candidates would have one minute to answer each question, with 30 seconds permitted for follow-ups. "At my discretion," he intoned, other candidates might be asked to comment on the same subject, but again, their answers had to be kept to 30 seconds or less. He had little confidence that the candidates would obey. If they ran overtime, he warned, "I'll try to gently remind them it's time to move on. And we're hoping some of the answers will be as short -- maybe a sentence, maybe even just one word. We can hope, right?"
The audience chuckled a little, hardly noticing that they were endorsing the idea of a TV host's ideal debate -- one in which the moderator does all the talking and the candidates limit themselves to one-word replies.
The presidential aspirants were to be super concise, but also specific. King's first question to Herman Cain, about job creation, carried a rebuke: "Mr. Cain ... be as specific as you can. I hope I don't have to repeat this throughout the night."
King asked a 97-word question of Rick Santorum. Santorum gave a 187-word reply. King was miffed. "OK, I'm going to try to ask all of you to keep the follow-ups to 30 seconds as we -- so we can get more in." Actually, Santorum was answering a first question, not a follow-up. And in any case, observe all the words King wasted. He could have said "30 seconds, please."
Pawlenty was next to be scolded. His 182-word answer about economic growth caused King to admonish: "I don't want to do much of this, but I'm going to have to interrupt if people go a little bit long so we can get more done." More of what, exactly? "Dancing with the Stars" or "American Idol"?
Throughout the debate, King simply could not get the candidates to refrain from speaking. He warned them again and again, "I'm polite so far, but I want to remind everybody about the time." "I'm going to ask one more time politely."
Since they insisted upon expressing their views in full sentences and paragraphs, rather than the monosyllables the moderator was hoping for, he tried later in the evening to dictate their answers. Turning to Ron Paul, King said:
"So, congressman, come into the conversation. As you do, don't make it just about foreclosures. This is -- this is an interesting topic of discussion, especially -- especially when money is scarce and you've got to start cutting. It's a question of priorities. What should the government be doing? And maybe what should the government be doing in a better economy that it can't do now that has to go?
"So talk about foreclosures a bit, but then tell me something, if you were president and you were dealing with it in your first few weeks, and you said, 'I might like to do this, but I can't afford to do this,' be as specific as you can, what goes?"
That question clocked in, by the way, over 100 words.
Everyone remembers Reagan's "I paid for this microphone" moment in 1980. It was a manly moment. In 1988, Dan Rather attempted to ambush then-Vice President George Bush about Iran/Contra. Bush, advised by the savvy Roger Ailes, came loaded for bear. During a live confrontation with Rather, Bush challenged every premise, repeatedly turning the tables on Rather. It was a defining moment of the campaign.
This is not to suggest that candidates promiscuously pick fights with the press. But when the questioner is insufferable, as King was in New Hampshire, the candidate who confronts him will be the hero of the night.