[Mb-civic] EDITORIAL Serve Up the Sizzle LATimes

Michael Butler michael at michaelbutler.com
Wed Sep 29 15:55:08 PDT 2004



Serve Up the Sizzle

 September 29, 2004

 Every four years, a media critic writes something like this: "When George
W. Bush and John F. Kerry square off in debate, journalists should demand
that the candidates offer substance rather than sizzle." Pundits will demand
that the media ‹ presumably all those other media that a particular pundit
doesn't work for ‹ give up the lame and lazy game of trying to assess which
candidate scored better on style.

 Though such observations may make the writer sound smart, superior and
profound, they're also wrong. The problem with the debates isn't that
there's too much sizzle, but not enough.

 The really juicy stuff is widely rejected as unimportant, but it isn't.
What's the relevance of Vietnam for Iraq? Does Bush really think that Kerry
copped out on his Vietnam War service, as claimed by the Swift boat ads Bush
has failed to fully condemn? This isn't a trivial matter. It's a serious one
that raises questions about the very quality that Bush has prided himself on
possessing: character.

 Focusing on the phony allegations and mudslinging may be the only way to
catch Bush and Kerry off guard. The debate format is designed to suppress
whatever bit of spontaneity they still possess. The sad truth is they've
been so extensively prepped on the big issues that only what seems ephemeral
can actually elicit a revealing response. Does Bush agree with those
Republicans who think speaking French is for wimps? Why does Kerry, by his
own admission, have trouble figuring out what to order at a restaurant?
Isn't that a sign of indecisiveness?

 There's rarely been a more combustible pair than these two products of the
same Yale debate coach. Kerry and Bush clearly don't dislike each other;
they loathe each other. But for all their macho talk ‹ has the word
"strength" ever featured more prominently in a campaign? ‹ both candidates
are behaving like wimps, refusing to allow reaction shots from the audience
or candidate close-ups during the debates. Walking around the podium is also
a big no-no. The 32-page "Memorandum of Understanding" that the two sides
released reads more like a nuclear nonproliferation agreement than ground
rules for a presidential duel.

 With PBS' Jim Lehrer, the incarnation of the earnest journalist,
moderating, the prospects for a debate that revels in the mudslinging recede
even further. But by focusing on the political and personal sparring that's
taken place, he might be able to accomplish the impossible and startle the
candidates into saying what they think rather than thinking about what
they're saying.

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