It was during the second presidential debate on Oct. 15 when I realized that the fight I really yearned to see on television wasn’t the tag-team wrestling of George vs. Bill vs. Ross or the hair-pulling cat fight between quiverin’ Dan Quayle and Al ??Granite?? Gore, but rather this election year’s missed opportunity, the potential heavyweight bout: Barbara vs. Hillary.
That second debate contained two telling moments. At one point, President Bush said that if his wife Barbara were running this year, she’d win. Cut to Mrs. Bush, who, though smiling pleasantly, seemed to be glaring at her husband as if to say, ”you’re right, poppy dear, but shouldn’t you be promoting yourself if you want to win this thing?” Then a bit later, during some instantly forgettable squabble on stage, a shot of Hillary Clinton flashed across our screens. She wore a wide, sly grin that was a subtle mixture of supportive-wife cheerfulness, wry sarcasm (message: ”Isn’t this supportive-wife-cheerfulness stuff silly?”), and utter contempt (message: ”I could wipe the floor with these guys in a debate”). There seemed to be so much more life in the faces of these women than in any of the candidates’ coached-to-bursting, bug-eyed stares that I wished we had a tradition of First Lady debates.
What we’re stuck with for 1992’s Presidential Debates, however, is a tradition of hang-the-issues-let’s-watch-‘em-sweat debates: political discourse as a deodorant commercial. Questions about the candidates’ positions cannot be clarified — that would require more time than either the candidates or the television networks are willing to grant us. You know the implied attitude by now: if you want to waste your time thinking, read a newspaper, pal.
No, the primary purpose of televised debates these days is to prepare the winner for more television — for four years of nettlesome televised press conferences, four years of being ambushed by news crews for a comment when you’re just trying to walk the damn presidential dog in the Rose Garden.
That’s why I think bush looked so wan and impatient during the first two meetings, why that supposedly damning shot of him looking at his watch during the Oct. 15 debate was really no big deal. He probably thought, four more years of being asked obvious questions under hot lights-who needs this malarkey? (By the final debate, Bush had figured it out: He needed this malarkey, and he gave a snappier performance.)
Clinton, on the other hand, seemed all too aware that debate time meant demonstrating-the-product time. Pitching his voice low and slow, taking every opportunity to seem close to his questioners (was Bill this nudgy on dates, Hillary?), Clinton invariably came on like Studs host Mark DeCarlo: Vote for me if you want some action.
And Perot, with his plugs for his half-hour network infomercials? His homespun homilies unraveled more with each debate, and the debates were the info-mercials, Ross — why pay for what you’re getting free? This was bad business sense from Little Big-Business Man.
My debate recommendation for 1996 is either to scrap these unenlightening suckers or recast them in TV terms: Roseanne Arnold debates Jerry Seinfeld, with the cast of In Living Color serving as the wild-card third-party candidate. That would rock the vote. First debate: C Second debate: B+ Third debate: B Vice presidential debate: A-