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Howard Rosenberg / Television

Debates: He Said, She Said, So What?

October 19, 1994|Howard Rosenberg

"Michael, you mindless, mewing moron."

"Dianne, you insidious insider and flip-flopping flotsam."

"Pete, you teetering, two-faced twit."

"Kathleen, you sanctimonious, soft-on-crime simpleton." In a California election season dominated by a zinging cross-fire of political spots, rare live television encounters between candidates can resonate out of proportion to their true value, assuming a blustery life of their own despite their irrelevance.

Flash back to Friday night's gubernatorial debate on TV between incumbent Pete Wilson and challenger Kathleen Brown, the state treasurer. Aired nationally on C-SPAN and on a modest statewide network that included KCET-TV Channel 28 in Los Angeles, was this a mismatch or what?

The candidates were questioned by a panel of reporters.

Wilson, the Republican, frequently stumbled, appearing nervous and tired. He was a sluggish and unfocused monotone, a dull, bland, uncharismatic minimalist. Not a good performance.

Democrat Brown, on the other hand, was lively, crisp and incisive. She was commanding, confidant. She was forceful and well-prepared. Right on cue, she was dramatic when she had to be, tailoring her responses to the TV format and its pre-arranged time constraints. Whereas Wilson had to be cut off on occasion when he ran out of time--making him look confused and even amateurish--Brown's debate blueprint coincided with the camera. She was superbly coached, punching home her messages, maximizing her opportunities by consistently ending her monologues on strong points only seconds before her time expired, as if guided by an internal clock. An excellent performance from a candidate trailing in the polls.

So?

So . . . nothing.

Whether you saw Brown or Wilson as triumphant (such judgments are highly subjective), it's absurd to believe that television debates or forums necessarily indicate a candidate's qualifications for office. They don't. Although it's widely accepted that these events are indispensable for informing the electorate, they indicate only how good or bad candidates are in front of the camera in a given instance.

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There's much more to be gained, potentially, from having foes sit with a single questioner in a more intimate setting, as Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Rep. Michael Huffington (R-Santa Barbara) did recently on a "Larry King Live" hour regarding the tight California race for U.S. senator. As for illumination, though, this CNN event was as low on wattage as the Wilson-Brown debate, dimmed by King's passivity and reluctance or inability to pointedly challenge either candidate.

As for Wilson and Brown, political observers say that both candidates did their share of fudging the truth when it came to defending their own positions and characterizing the opposition's. So on the integrity barometer, the debate appeared to be a wash. If you do concur that Brown had a better night in front of the camera, though, it means only that she gave the better performance, not that being more comfortable on television necessarily made her the better candidate. If Wilson had outshone her, the same would apply to him.

In fact, the very qualities that usually win favor in such TV debates--the quick quip, the practiced delivery, the dramatic pause followed by the memorable sound bite (as in Brown's "Don't read his lips, read my plan!")--are relatively unrelated to effective governing. They are related to theater.

Conversely, weighing matters thoughtfully before making a decision is crucial to governing or being a good legislator. But catch a candidate doing that in one of these televised debates and he or she is finished, automatically relegated by pundits to the rubble heap of fuzzy-headed incompetents.

If Wilson or Brown had bent to pressure by flipping out and pulling a Captain Queeg, chattering out of control while nervously massaging a handful of ball bearings, then you would have had something. But neither did. TV debates, to say nothing of political ads, yield no such spontaneity. Even the most persuasive ones are long on image, short on usable information.

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DECENT DAN: Monday's live, satellite interview crackled across the airwaves. "I think you got another bestseller here," KCBS-TV Channel 2 anchor-turned-literary critic Tritia Toyota assured CBS News anchor Dan Rather.

Rather apparently felt no hypocrisy in using a noon newscast on his network's Los Angeles station to promote his new book that laments the "Hollywoodization of the news." He also decries the "sleazing of news."

He did not exempt himself or his employer from this indictment. "I include myself in this criticism, and do not exclude CBS News from it," he said. As for "over-coverage of the Simpson case," in which CBS has been a participant, he said, "We should stop what is happening."

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