Millions of Americans will commit a political act Wednesday night by turning on their TV sets. They'll watch something called a "debate" between the presidential candidates. In fact it's just another TV show, a piece of political theater, and if there's a "winner," he should receive an Emmy, not four years' occupancy of the Oval Office.
Oh well, it will probably provide a wee bit more intellectual stimulus than the entertainments whose screen time it pre-empts. There are good scripts and bad scripts and this is likely to fall somewhere in between.
Roughly four in five of the Americans expected to watch Wednesday's performances had not even been born when these things we call debates began. The Democrat was John F. Kennedy, a young senator best known outside of Washington for being a son of one of America's richest men. The Republican was the incumbent vice president, a tough veteran of the political wars, Richard M. Nixon. Nixon, it was thought, would make mincemeat of the inexperienced Kennedy.
Those "debates" undoubtedly had an important effect on the outcome of the election. Even then there wasn't a lot of substance to them. Image -- Nixon's "five o'clock shadow," Kennedy's "youthful vigor" -- swayed more voters than anything that was said. But it was a lesson for political handlers. These pieces of theater could be powerful tools in the right hands. And so the curtain rose on Camelot while, backstage, the era of spinmeisters, damage control and sound bytes emerged from behind the drums of pancake make-up.
The debates have evolved into showcases for the theater arts of so-called journalists as well as candidates. Jim Lehrer of PBS, the moderator for Wednesday's show, is a widely-imitated master of The Serious Look, the mandatory mien for asking banal questions that the candidates know are coming. Performers for ABC, CNN and CBS will moderate subsequent debate shows.
All of this stuff is orchestrated by a Commission on Presidential Debates, created in 1987 "to ensure that debates, as a permanent part of every general election, provide the best possible information to viewers and listeners." The commission members are a typical cross section of the white Christian male plutocracy that runs the country, with a token woman (Dorothy Ridings, a former newspaper publisher) and a token Hispanic (Antonia Hernandez, who is also a trustee of the Rockefeller Foundation and a director of the American Constitution Society and the American Automobile Association0.
The commission sets the dates for the theatricals, names the moderators and generally assures that the voting public will get an entertaining show. The commission even has its own set designer, f'gawdsakes, who makes sure that the lighting us up to snuff. That assures that nobody will be done in again by "five o'clock shadow" although, truth to tell, there's nothing to be done about the Republican ticket's pronounced "good hair" advantage this time around.
It's all good fun and a cheap way to fill hours and hours of broadcast time without forcing anyone to actually think. You might say it's just another one of those "reality shows" that TV executives love to death these days. Occasionally in the past these things have given us flashes of soap opera drama, as well. The Talking Heads will assure us that the shows make news.
They are some kind of made-for-TV animal. But they aren't debates.