The great (?) debate

Posted: Oct 05, 2000 12:00 AM

TOO OFTEN the first presidential debate looked like an Al Gore monologue, with footnotes by George W. Bush, while moderator Jim Lehrer looked on like an innocent bystander.

Perhaps Lehrer was too much of a gentleman to say, "Shut up, already, so the other guy can get a word in edgewise." But there are other ways of imposing some penalty for violating the rules and the spirit of the debates.

When the moderator announces, "You have two minutes," that doesn't mean anything if one speaker -- Gore repeatedly, in this case -- can ramble on as long as he wants, not to mention interrupting and disrupting the other speaker when his time comes. In the House of Representatives, the presiding officer announces, "The gentleman's time has expired." If the Congressman who is talking keeps going on anyway, then there is the sound of the gavel and, finally, a more insistent "The gentleman's time has expired" and a harder and repeated sound of the gavel again.

That may or may not fit presidential debates, or Lehrer's personal low-key style. But why not have a buzzer set to go off at the end of the allotted time? Why not a graphic on the screen to show how much total time has been used by each candidate? Why not gently remind the speaker and the national audience when the time is out of balance and ask that further remarks be saved for the closing statement?

In one sense, violating the rules is what Al Gore has been all about, in his political career as well as in debates. Although media pundits have said that Bill Clinton is a handicap to Al Gore's chances of being elected to succeed him, Clinton may also be a benefit to Gore, in the sense of overshadowing Gore's violations of rules and Gore's dishonesty with his own.

Gore has been one of the biggest violators of the campaign finance laws that he now has the gall to make a centerpiece of his election program. Calling for more laws when the existing laws are not being honored or enforced makes no sense, except politically. And it makes sense politically only because much of the public either doesn't know the facts or forgets easily.

Gore's claim that he didn't know he was violating the campaign finance laws is weaker than the excuses made by little kids. With an army of staffers and advisers arranging every detail of every event on his schedule, how can a grown man claim not to know that he was going to a fund-raiser? With documentary evidence that he was present at a White House meeting when the schedule and purpose of an event was spelled out in words of one syllable, how can Gore claim that he didn't know, wasn't paying attention, had to go to the bathroom and missed what was said?

Effrontery is how. Chutzpah is how. Contempt for the public's intelligence is how. Gore's style is different from Clinton's but the substance is not. Square-jawed lies, told with Boy Scout innocence, are still lies.

Gore's ability to deny documented facts with brazen indignation goes far beyond his violations of campaign finance laws. He has categorically denied flip-flopping on issues ranging from gun control to abortion, even though his votes in Congress are part of the permanent official record.

As a Congressman from a conservative state, Gore voted against gun control laws -- again and again and year after year. But, after he moved from the House of Representatives to the Senate and now had national political ambitions, he began to vote in favor of gun control laws, knowing that he now had to appeal to liberal Democrats around the country in order to seek national office.

It was the same story on abortion. His votes and public statements in the House of Representatives were pro-life. Then, later, in the Senate, his votes and statements were pro-choice.

Gore is a chameleon. When he spoke in Harlem, he adopted the very style and cadence of a baptist minister. He sounded like a white Jesse Jackson. But he doesn't talk that way to white audiences in Hollywood or in Silicon Valley.

Nor can Gore or his supporters fall back on the claim that "everybody" does it. Neither Franklin D. Roosevelt nor Ronald Reagan ever sounded like anybody but FDR or Ronald Reagan.

Now we can see why Governor George W. Bush wanted a different debate format, with a more aggressive moderator like Larry King or Tim Russert to reign in Gore's time and Gore's lies. We can only hope that the public sees through Gore's tactics and realizes that they are getting a glimpse of the unscrupulous man that he is.