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Marvin Kitman Headshot

Weapon of Mass Distraction

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June is an exciting month for TV presidential primary debating fans. It begins with the Democratic Debating Society -- the eight men and one-woman varsity team still in the running, or at least jogging, for the 2008 presidential nomination -- performing at Saint Anselm College on Sunday night, June 3. And two nights later (June 5), the Republican Traveling Circus & Rhetorical Stumpers -- nine strong -- arrives at the same New Hampshire college venue to strut their stuff. Sponsored by CNN, WMUR-TV, and the New Hampshire Union Leader, both events at the Sullivan Arena will enlighten the nation for two hours, starting at 7 PM. The usual suspects will be appearing at what could be the longest running mini-series in the history of political drama.

Based on the first four episodes seen so far, the debates look to me like a police line up. The candidates appear so stiff, so scared, it's almost as if they fear some secretary in the audience at the college or behind the one-way mirror at home (the TV screen) will come out and say, "That's the one who molested me in the office." The lights go up. Eyes bulge. We are just waiting to see the moderator, say, "Number 4, please step forward, turn sideways," and the voice cries out "That's the one."

It hasn't been that exciting yet.

I don't mean to be critical, but calling the snoozefests that will be taking place at Saint Anselm and elsewhere on the remaining debating schedule a debate is a misnomer. No matter how they tweak it, candidates standing up or sitting down or standing on their heads, it's still a glorified press conference. Whether it stars a one-man moderator, or a team of crack media Torquemadas, it's still a format designed to confuse the already confused electorate.

The so-called TV debate is the perfect weapon of mass distraction. Somebody asks a question for somebody on stage, and then a different question of somebody else on stage, thus defying comparative voter analysis on any one issue.

Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the candidates giving their best well honed rhetorical tropes and treating each other with such respect. I gather they are under the impression they all are qualified to be president. In my dream-like state, I start to think they all deserve to be president. Each will have one day a week in the Oval Office as chairman of the presidential committee. Dennis Kucinich will get the eighth day.

President by committee is not such a bad idea. Couldn't do any worse than the one guy we elected through the existing debating system in 2000 and 2004.

There is in this the 231st year of American democracy such a comfortable acceptance of these non-debates as debates. Candidates seem to have forgotten how debates really worked. At a real debate you expect debaters to be at each other. "Listen, you lying bastard. That's not what you said last week." They don't seem to get that.

That's why I think there should be a debating school for these guys. Before we are allowed to give them national TV airtime, they ought to be required to take classes where they are forced to read Lincoln-Douglas debate transcripts. Bryan v. McKinley. Whatever. Attending actual debates should be mandatory. They are still done at the Oxford Union, at Yale and perhaps even at the University of Texas. So they will know. Because they are clearly misinformed about them today.

I would stay awake for a real TV debate: "Proposition: The American people should vote for me and not the other guy." And they slug it out for an hour or 90 minutes.

What they are doing in the name of enlightened political discourse now is an exercise in futility and stupidity. And every four years it gets worse.

Pretty soon, debates are going to be like a sock hop at a college. I mean, there will be a band, and candidates will answer a few questions, like "Who's your favorite 'American Idol' contestant?" Some hard-nosed reporter already asked a probing question in a presidential primary debate on Fox in 2003, "What's your favorite song?"

Candidates will say a few words, have a dance or two, and go home. And that will be it.