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Nuggets Aren't Enough

December 03, 1987

Call it the McDebate, providing little nuggets of insight into 12 presidential candidates squeezed between the nettlesome omnipresence of moderator Tom Brokaw and auto ads. The game-show pace of NBC's "America's Future" on Tuesday made it impossible for viewers to learn anything in depth about the six Democrats and six Republicans. Given one minute to explain his position on the Middle East or the domestic economy, a candidate can do little more than utter his standard TV-clip response.

Still, within those confines this was a fair representation of the presidential field for viewers who had not been exposed to the candidates. Generally they came across as who they are, although Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.) was subdued and defensive about gaps in his economics program, Vice President George Bush strove to act very presidential and very obviously dodged the question about where he was during Iranscam meetings, and Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.) spent a lot of time on the fence on issues or, as columnist David S. Broder put it, being "uncomfortably middled."

Part of the problem was NBC's effort to turn serious politics into prime-time excitement. Part of the problem is the mandate of analysts to declare winners and losers, to determine who landed punches on whom and who stubbed toes. One supposedly complimentary observation was that the pace was fast. Clearly it was too fast: Too much ground to cover, too many people, too little time.

There will be more so-called debates, but unfortunately they will tread the same vast territory in the same shallow fashion. So what if a candidate can memorize a clever 60-second answer for any question? No one can do that better than Ronald Reagan. Americans need to see the candidates discuss and analyze complex subjects in detail. They should have to answer tough questions that begin with the words "What if?" They should be allowed to talk, not posture, and at length--with no time out for commercials.

Presidential campaigns are about things like war and peace and the economic life of the country in a changed world. Tuesday's nuggets were fine, but only as a minimally satisfying appetizer.

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