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The W. and Bill no-show

It's too bad the two former presidents pulled out of two scheduled evenings of policy debates, er, policy discussions.

November 11, 2009

Debate is a venerable oratorical form, a verbal art, if you will. It's a shame that the modern incarnation of debate -- the anger-fraught, sound-bite, gotcha version -- has so tainted its image that former presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton felt obliged to withdraw from several scheduled appearances together, largely over the use of that word.

The former presidents were debatenever planning to , a spokesman for Clinton said, expressing distaste for the use of the term by a promoter. Rather, he said, they were going to participate in a moderated discussion of serious policy issues, one in Los Angeles, one in New York.

Because Clinton and Bush disagree on a mountain of those issues, any truly serious discussion would have had to delve into those differences. Each man would have had to muster his best facts, context and persuasive skills to back up his viewpoint; otherwise, the audiences would have gotten a poor value for tickets that ranged in price up to $125 for the L.A. showcase. And this differs from debate exactly how?

The two ex-presidents also may have been disturbed by the ads proclaiming these the "hottest tickets in political history." That was certainly hyperbolic enough to draw a smile; it strains the imagination to picture scalpers raking in cash from people desperate for an evening of civic discourse by two men who no longer hold any position of power. But the overstatement smacked more of wishful thinking than misrepresentation. There was a time when informed and engaged Americans thought one of the most entertaining ways to spend an evening was to listen to prestigious leaders speak their minds. Now we have "NCIS."

Let's face it: Former world leaders have limited options for reclaiming the spotlight and making some money. There's the inevitable book or two, perhaps a chance to do a little foreign diplomacy, as Clinton did in bringing two American journalists home from North Korea. Then there's the lecture circuit, where two unlikely companions from disparate parts of the political spectrum sell a lot more tickets than a predictable moderate Democrat or a predictable social conservative giving a black-tie speech. And it's a lot more lucrative than a commencement address.

In other words, whether Clinton and Bush admit it or not, the value of the tickets to these events relied on a certain amount of disagreement, no matter how they were billed or how much genuine respect the two men have for each other. By pulling out, they have missed an opportunity to remind the public how a true civic -- and civil -- debate is supposed to sound.

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