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Serve Up the Sizzle

September 29, 2004

Every four years, a media critic writes something like this: "When George W. Bush and John F. Kerry square off in debate, journalists should demand that the candidates offer substance rather than sizzle." Pundits will demand that the media -- presumably all those other media that a particular pundit doesn't work for -- give up the lame and lazy game of trying to assess which candidate scored better on style.

Though such observations may make the writer sound smart, superior and profound, they're also wrong. The problem with the debates isn't that there's too much sizzle, but not enough.

The really juicy stuff is widely rejected as unimportant, but it isn't. What's the relevance of Vietnam for Iraq? Does Bush really think that Kerry copped out on his Vietnam War service, as claimed by the Swift boat ads Bush has failed to fully condemn? This isn't a trivial matter. It's a serious one that raises questions about the very quality that Bush has prided himself on possessing: character.

Focusing on the phony allegations and mudslinging may be the only way to catch Bush and Kerry off guard. The debate format is designed to suppress whatever bit of spontaneity they still possess. The sad truth is they've been so extensively prepped on the big issues that only what seems ephemeral can actually elicit a revealing response. Does Bush agree with those Republicans who think speaking French is for wimps? Why does Kerry, by his own admission, have trouble figuring out what to order at a restaurant? Isn't that a sign of indecisiveness?

There's rarely been a more combustible pair than these two products of the same Yale debate coach. Kerry and Bush clearly don't dislike each other; they loathe each other. But for all their macho talk -- has the word "strength" ever featured more prominently in a campaign? -- both candidates are behaving like wimps, refusing to allow reaction shots from the audience or candidate close-ups during the debates. Walking around the podium is also a big no-no. The 32-page "Memorandum of Understanding" that the two sides released reads more like a nuclear nonproliferation agreement than ground rules for a presidential duel.

With PBS' Jim Lehrer, the incarnation of the earnest journalist, moderating, the prospects for a debate that revels in the mudslinging recede even further. But by focusing on the political and personal sparring that's taken place, he might be able to accomplish the impossible and startle the candidates into saying what they think rather than thinking about what they're saying.

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