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HOWARD ROSENBERG

Candidates' Forum--big Talk On Little Screen

July 03, 1987|Howard Rosenberg

One of these days, Buckley. One of these days--pow!--right in the kisser!

What Wednesday night's special two-hour "Firing Line" on PBS needed was a straight talker like Ralph Kramden to chain saw through host William F. Buckley Jr.'s sniffy barbs and the posturing and campaign rhetoric of the candidates.

What it also desperately needed was a woman to relieve the monotony of males.

They came to Houston for the first televised candidates' forum of the election season, came with big ambitions, big schemes and big talk. Seven swell guys with all the answers. And they want to be . . .

YOUR PRESIDENT!!!

Har-de-har-de-har-har!

Conclusions?

We can all appreciate the benefits of TV when it comes to image. And the video age may have carried us to a point where the presidency and an inability to communicate on TV are incompatible.

However, the informational value of such TV spectacles as Wednesday's is yet to be established. Oh, it's true that there's always the chance that a candidate will disqualify himself or herself on TV under pressure either by foaming at the mouth or by fondling little ball bearings a la Capt. Queeg in "The Caine Mutiny."

But fat chance. The far greater likelihood is that a candidates' forum will tell you nothing beyond how a candidate performs on TV at a given point in time. For all we know, one of these guys went back to his hotel room after "Firing Line" and immediately hopped into bed with his Teddy bear and began sucking his thumb.

More of these TV chats are around the corner. Buckley is scheduled to return with Republican candidates in September, NBC will offer its own candidate forums for both parties in December and the League of Women Voters will do the same later in the campaign.

If nothing else, Wednesday's event, which will be rerun at 2 p.m. Saturday on Channel 15 and at 1 p.m. Sunday on Channel 28, may have partially liberated some of these Democrats from their prison of anonymity.

The candidates revealed deep and irreconcilable differences on how a President should govern most effectively: Delaware Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. would call in investment bankers for talks, former Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt would call in the world's trading nations and Illinois Sen. Paul Simon would call in members of Congress.

There were also distinct similarities:

Each candidate was allowed to supply a videotape of himself in action for use near the end of the telecast. In his tape, Biden told a story about campaigning. Babbitt told a story about his friend's wife. Simon told a story about a former Chicago mayor. Tennessee Sen. Albert Gore Jr. told a story about a farmer and a cow. The Rev. Jesse Jackson told a story about his wife's cooking. Missouri Rep. Richard A. Gephardt told a story about Republicans. Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis told a story about the Boston Celtics.

The candidate who tells the best story will make the best President?

Oh, OHHHHHH, these guys were askin' for a real belt!

More conclusions?

The candidates were introduced via short taped segments that sounded at best like a video dating service ("Hello, I'm Paul Simon. . . .") and at worst like . . . well, judge for yourself:

There was Babbitt, in his red plaid shirt, strolling with his family and dog in the sunny Arizona outdoors, with massive Cathedral Rock looming in the background. A family man, a basic man, a rugged man, a man's man, a dog's man.

It could have been worse. He could have been on a horse.

Stay tuned, the race has only begun.

Wednesday night's telecast itself--while attempting to separate itself from those traditionally stiff League of Women Voters candidate forums that will follow--suffered from its own brand of camera rigidity. If TV is to be the critical medium in selecting candidates, then its pictures should be broad, not narrow. Let's put on a real show.

Yes, Buckley, "Firing Line's" conservative Republican host, was in his usual combative form, his questions often upstaging the candidates' replies (which wasn't difficult). Except for a few Goodyear Blimp-like shots, however, the candidates were always shown separately and never as a group or even in twos or threes. That made it impossible to judge them visually in relation to each other--feeding the suspicion that Gephardt and Gore are the same person.

What's more, the candidates brought with them to Houston prescribed answers that they were determined to deliver regardless of the question. Well, that's politics.

More conclusions about the participants?

Funniest: Buckley.

Unfunniest: Dukakis.

Best communicator: Biden.

Worst communicator: Dukakis.

Best hands: Gore, especially in emphasizing his courageous opposition to lying.

Most like an anchorman: Tie between Gephardt, because of his hair (which seemed fused to his scalp), and Gore, because he was the only candidate with enough savvy to speak directly to the camera at all times, as if responding to America, not his questioner. Given the importance of TV in presidential politics, it's about time we got two candidates who could anchor the evening news if not the Oval Office.

Stuffiest: Simon.

Most intense: Jackson.

Most impressive: Buckley's cohost for the evening, Bob Strauss, a former Democratic Party chairman and partisan to be sure, but also the only man on stage who appeared as interested in conveying information as image.

For the rest? Pow! A big, fat knuckle sandwich.

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