EDITORIAL: Debates are debatable

The upcoming presidential debates between Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush are generating the usual media interest and speculation, but not a lot of public anticipation. At least that’s our read.

We realize that public debates are supposed to allow the American public to hear from the candidates and make a reasonable decision on the basis of the interchange. Maybe this year’s debates will be different, but our observation has been that recent presidential have not been the great forums of democracy that they are touted as being.

Too often, it seems these “spontaneous” debates are little more than well-rehearsed responses to anticipated questions. And, if the moderator doesn’t ask the candidate expects, the candidate simply gives the answer he wanted to give anyway. “Winners” and “loses” are seldom clear, nor are they usually determined on the basis of their responses. More often, it’s the timely quip or gaffe that sways public opinion. Is this the best way way to elect the leader of the most powerful nation on earth?

Debates do little more than test a candidate’s ability to memorize and regurgitate factoids and one-liners under intense public scrutiny. Besides, who’s to say the ability to be quick on one’s feet is the best qualification for president anyway? We don’t mind at all a candidate who prefers to weigh the options for a time before speaking his mind.

Last week historians noted the 40th anniversary of the first televised presidential debate. It occurred between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy. Most say the young senator from Massachusetts outshown his opponent by his physical appearance and charm. Kennedy went on to win the presidency by the narrowest of margins and many historians say televised debates were the reason.

The principle behind presidential debates-to hear candidates’ perspectives on the issues that affect our nation-is a worthy one. But we’re not sure the substance of these debates is as substantial as the symbolism for which they stand.

We’ll likely watch at least some of the debates between Bush and Gore. We’ll listen to the pundits’ analysis of who won and who lost. Then we’ll listen to the spin meisters in each camp tell us how their man won.

In the end, will it matter?

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