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Sandy Banks

Just Ask the Kids: It's the Image That Counts

October 17, 2000|Sandy Banks

It will take more than the promise of extra credit in social studies class to convince my children to sit with me tonight through this final face-off of presidential contenders.

The kids, ages 9, 11, and 15, stuck it out last week--while the candidates prattled on about countries they'd never heard of and the merits of the IMF--and wound up not enlightened, but confused.

Not about where the candidates stand on the issues. The two men obviously stand side-by-side on just about everything . . . at least judging from their painfully earnest efforts to avoid seeming to disagree.

What bewildered my children was the notion that this te^te-a-te^te is intended to help us choose a president.

"I thought this was supposed to be a debate," said my sixth-grader, as she watched the two men mince and parry. She remembers the word from her vocabulary lesson: Debate: a formal contest of skill in reasoned argument, with two teams taking opposite sides of an issue or question.

So where were the opposite sides, she wondered. "Aren't they ever going to get in a fight?"

Her teenage sister was similarly bored. "I know it's not going to be Jerry Springer," she said midway through the evening. "But I would like to see a little action."

Me, too.

*

My daughters were so surprised to find me watching television at night that they joined me: I had tuned in specifically to try to understand the so-called gender gap that divides our affections for these men--to see George W. Bush strut like the "man's man" who male voters say he seems to be; to catch a glimpse of the emotional side of Al Gore that's supposed to appeal to women.

The Wall Street Journal reported last spring that when women were asked by a Gore pollster which candidate they'd rather date, they said Gore because they consider him thoughtful and interested in what women have to say. The women viewed Bush as the type who would drive up in a flashy convertible, honk the horn and spend all night talking about himself.

By the time the second debate was over, I was more interested in my daughters' reaction than mine. I respect the power of the televised image to affect our perception of reality. I'm not sure what it says about my daughters--but it was Bush who won their hearts.

"He just seems nicer, more relaxed," the 11-year-old said. She liked his red tie, his haircut, his easy smile. Gore, she said, studying his televised image, "looks kind of like a lizard."

Her older sister likened Bush to our puppy, Puff: "Kind of cute and scruffy, but basically clueless." Gore, she said, reminded her of the campus know-it-all who wrecks the curve on every test and never neglects to raise his hand with a reminder when the teacher forgets to hand out homework.

She wasn't much impressed by the way Gore deftly fielded a question on foreign policy. But when that same query was put to Bush, she couldn't help but feel his pain. She understood the deer-in-the-headlights expression that momentarily crossed his face.

"It's the way I look when I'm called on in class and I know I haven't been paying attention . . . and I don't even understand the question, much less know the answer."

*

Tonight's less formal "town hall" format, with questions from the audience, should make for a livelier discussion, but the question of who wins is still liable to hinge less on substance than style. So here, from my 15-year-old spinmeister, is a bit of advice for the candidates as they take their last shot.

Bush, she says, "shouldn't blink so much. It makes him look like he's having trouble paying attention." Gore needs to loosen up, find a hairstyle that doesn't require quite so much gel, and use a makeup that makes his skin look less ruddy.

The governor needn't sweat his lamebrain image. "Stick with generalities," she says, because the details might tick people off. "The tax cut stuff . . . that's good. I mean, everybody pays taxes."

The vice president ought to stop rambling. "Tell us stuff that everybody already knows. Stop going on and on with all this information about stuff that nobody understands. Bor-ing."

And it wouldn't hurt if, every now and then, somebody threw a chair.

*

Sandy Banks' column runs on Sundays and Tuesdays. Her e-mail address is sandy.banks@latimes.com.

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