Advancing a Free Society

Where is Don Draper when you need him?

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Proof that time marches on: next Wednesday marks five months since the first Republican presidential debate.

Beginning with that opening exchange in Greenville, S.C. (try this for irony: the political rumble was held at the town’s Peace Center), the forensic trail has led the hopefuls to New Hampshire, Iowa, California, and two stops in Florida.

Need proof that presidential candidates are gluttons for punishment? Another 10 nationally televised debates are scheduled or tentatively slated, from the second Tuesday in October to the first Monday in March.

The complaint here isn’t one having to do with quantity.

We’re a free society and voters deserve a thorough vetting of their leaders. And, in a free society, tv viewers are free to change the channel if they so desire.

My concern is the quality of said forums.

Are the debate organizers giving us a sound exchange of ideas? Or, as it’s a visual medium and a sound-bite culture, brought to us by networks that thrive on partisan argument and interpersonal tension, are the providers too caught up in theatrics to understand the difference between public service and public amusement?

Earlier this week, The Daily Beast’s Howard Kurtz offered this backstage look at Fox News’ preparation for last week’s Orlando debate – in his words: “part political spectacle, part “American Idol”, part YouTube extravaganza . . .”

That article included this disturbing passage:

“Hours before [the debate], [Fox News presidential Roger] Ailes’ anchors sat in a cavernous black room, hunched over laptops, and plotted how to trap the candidates. Chris Wallace said he would aim squarely at Rick Perry’s weakness: “how do you feel about being criticized by some of your rivals as being too soft on illegal immigration? Then I go to Rick Santorum: is Perry too soft?”

“That’s going to get some fireworks going,” said managing editor Bill Sammon, grinning.

When showtime arrived, producer Marty Ryan choreographed the action from a crowded trailer outside the convention hall: he called for a two-shot when Wallace invited Mitt Romney to criticize Perry’s immigration stance, so the audience could watch both men’s agitated expressions. But Ryan barked, “Let’s just be on Perry,” as the Texas governor demanded to know whether Santorum had ever been to the Mexican border, capturing the moment. Afterward, Ailes phoned a top lieutenant: “Tell the team we’ve been kicking ass in these debates.”

Good political theater? Certainly.

But, at the same time, viewers didn’t hear much in the way of an in-depth discussion as to how to move forward on illegal immigration – the Gordian Knot of American politics as it interweaves the thorny matters of citizenship, social services, public safety and racial tolerance.

The same goes for healthcare reform, balancing the federal budget and whittling down the national debt, the war on terror and curing a dysfunctional political system: these weighty topics are drowning in a steady stream of debates more concerned with shallow visuals than deeper reflection.

And the losers in this medium? The folks who’ve tuned in looking for answers, not antics. Then again, maybe it’s the price we pay for living in a time when broadcast ratings are fueled by folks willing are dance, sing, starve and grovel their way to notoriety.

How might we change the system?

If you have 58 minutes to spare, try watching this video – the first Kennedy-Nixon debate of the 1960 election, otherwise known as the night that presidential politics entered the television age.

Three things stand out in this hour-long broadcast:

  1. As may already know, the camera’s far more in love with the tanned Kennedy than the pasty Nixon, who was suffering from an infected right knee and a throbbing head – he’d banged his noggin on a boom mike before the debate began.
  2. The low production value of this Don Draper-infused “Mad Men”-era broadcast. No elaborate backdrops, no buzzers – just simple head-on shots, occasional cutaways, with the candidates acting politely and waiting their turns.
  3. The quality of the questions (here’s the full transcript). No gotchas. Kennedy was asked about his experience and maturity, whether he’s continued government farm subsidies, how he’d simultaneously engaged in new spending and deficit reduction, how’d he push an ambitious social agenda through a reluctant Democratic Senate, and the seriousness of Communist subversion. Nixon, on the other hand, was asked to list policies he’d fostered via the Eisenhower Administration, why he’d called for higher teacher salaries but didn’t cast a tie-breaking Senate vote doing so (and whether the Administration was taking too much credit for local school progress), and why he and not Kennedy would have a stronger partnership with Congress.

The New York Times’ take the following morning: “For the most part, the exchanges were distinguished by a suavity, earnestness and courtesy that suggested that the two men were more concerned about ‘image projection’ to their huge television audience than about scoring debating points.”

This isn’t to suggest that the American fabric would be stronger if we turned back the clock a half-century – an episode of “Man Men” will convince you of that.

But there is something to be said about the television gods returning to their politics roots – and a better age in which debates existed to inform, not entertain.