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CAPITOL JOURNAL

Debating in Short, Simple Sentences

May 30, 1994|GEORGE SKELTON

Gov. Pete Wilson will need to sharpen his debate game before facing Kathleen Brown--or John Garamendi, or Tom Hayden or even Ron Unz again.

In the only debate of the Republican gubernatorial primary, Wilson on Friday was too long-winded, too testy and too humdrum. There was no attempt to tell voters why a second Wilson term might be better than the first.

The novice Unz, a young rags-to-riches computer nerd, projected even less warmth than the governor. But he was succinct in arguing his conservative agenda.

To be fair, this was a failed format from the start. Wilson sat in a Phoenix hotel room with a telephone receiver pressed to his face--his staff didn't even get him earphones--while Unz and talk radio's Michael Jackson commiserated and collaborated in a Los Angeles studio. Wilson miscalculated by not ducking out of a governors' conference and flying to Los Angeles for the hourlong KABC debate.

As a consequence, Wilson was the odd man out. He was ganged up on by Unz and Jackson, both impatient at what the host disrespectfully called the governor's "droning on." Wilson had trouble hearing. He and Unz talked over each other. Jackson couldn't control the debate. And many listeners probably got a headache.

There seemed to be as much debating between Wilson and Jackson as between the governor and Unz. "I'm perfectly happy to cover whatever (issues) you want," Wilson told Jackson at one touchy point. "No you're not," the host replied. Another time, Jackson advised Wilson there was a danger "we'll all yawn to death."

Jackson frequently shook his head in frustration, sometimes signaling Unz to interrupt the governor, not that Unz needed any such prod. He interrogated Wilson as much as the host did.

Off the air, during a commercial break, Jackson commented: "I won't say who, but somebody had a charisma bypass."

Jackson clearly meant Wilson and after the show said: "I was more than a little frustrated. I don't like being rude, but I wanted to get to as many issues as possible and avoid the droning on."

*

Jackson experienced a governor all too familiar to reporters. Ask Wilson a question and often you get a rambling and repetitive speech. But even the best of politicians--Ronald Reagan included--tend to suffer from meander mouth. And the malady worsens the longer they are exposed to high office.

I've always figured this is because senior aides are afraid to tell their bosses the truth--that they talk too much and don't listen enough and often aren't very interesting. Also, the politicians believe their records will be "understood" if only they can "educate" the press and the public on every minute detail.

Reporters may tolerate this, but the public won't--not in an era of channel surfing through TV sound bites.

Ironically, Wilson is at his best when parrying with reporters at a news conference. He usually is precise and concise. It's when he becomes bent on "educating" that he stumbles into a verbal quagmire.

"We are in the age of brevity," Jackson noted to reporters. And he praised the three Democratic candidates--Treasurer Brown, Insurance Commissioner Garamendi and Sen. Hayden--for being brief, "strong and decisive" in a radio debate he had moderated two days earlier.

But critics said the Democrats' answers were "canned," a reporter noted. "Well, if your 'canned' is an honest canned, be canned," the radio veteran advised. "Be candid and canned."

*

The debate was manna for Unz, who says he is out of money for TV ads after having spent $1 million of his own savings for commercials in April. He has never before run for office, but still was getting 29% of the Republican vote--against Wilson's 52%--in the latest Times poll.

And on Friday, the political neophyte was being treated as a coequal of California's governor in a debate carried live by radio stations throughout California.

Why did Wilson allow this to happen?

Many of his advisers had cautioned against it. "I'm not wild about this," campaign manager George Gorton had said before the debate. "If I had my druthers, I'd ignore Unz."

Wilson quickly accepted the offer, aides insist, because he always has debated his opponents. They deny being worried about Unz's vote, although there's obviously some anxiety.

They indicate the main reason for accepting is that Wilson anticipates challenging Brown--the presumed Democratic nominee--to a series of fall debates and doesn't want to be criticized for refusing to debate his GOP opponent.

But before his next debate, Wilson should take a refresher course in framing compact responses.

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