08/13/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Generation Debate

So: We know when the Presidential debates will be held this year, and who will be moderating: Jim Lehrer, Tom Brokaw, Bob Scheiffer and Gwen Ifill, who will moderate the Vice-Presidential debate once the Veepstakes have been won. It's the same slate as it was two years ago, except Brokaw is replacing Charlie Gibson in the lineup.

For those keeping score, that's two for PBS, one for NBC, one for CBS --and zip for ABC. There has been some murmuring that it's payback for the widely-criticized ABC debate this past April (a.k.a. the "Where's Your Flag Pin And Why Do You Hate America, Barack Obama?" debate). To that we say: Who knows. The Commision on Presidential Debates website is about as bland and informationless as any I've ever seen.

But: The replacement of Charlie Gibson isn't as striking as the statement that's being made here generationally. Look who's been tapped to moderate the most important debates in the land: Brokaw, 68; Scheiffer, 71; Lehrer, 74. (Ifill is 52, and will be 53 by the debate, but she'll be with the Veeps, which we'll get to.)

So imagine the stage: The distinguished elder-statesman moderator (or AARP-eligible, whichever you prefer), John McCain, who will be 72 by then -- and Barack Obama, who will be 21 years junior to the youngest of the bunch. I joked about AARP eligibility, but let's face it: The face of wisdom and authority in this country is still a distinguished and gravitas'd one. There's a reason they call it "eminence grise."

So, close your eyes and imagine the tableau. Remember how striking the Republican line of candidates looked in their homogeneity, and how no one had really noticed until there were the dems with their striking pair, the brightly-pantsuited woman and the handsome, darker-hued man? Here, that darker hue will stick out not only in color but in age: more than being the African-American on stage, Obama will be the junior member.

Back to Ifill. She'll be moderating the Veeps as she has done in the past (and we will leave the designation of the woman-minority to the second-tier debate for another time). But imagine if she was moderating a presidential debate. Then, instead of the visual of two distinguished, elderly men and the younger African-American (a first for that stage), it would be two younger black Americans with one older white man (a real first for that stage!). But think of how different those visuals are, especially in the balance of majority/minority.

What's different than last time? Virtually nothing, from one side. Except for the Gibson-Brokaw swap, the slate is pretty much the same. But on the other side, we have two candidates whose many differences begin at the superficial: one is young and black, one is old and white, and against the same old backdrop, suddenly you notice.