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The Times
  • Curt Smith: Debates just one way to judge candidates

  • By Oct. 22, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney will have thrice debated on television. Their race is within the margin of error: Obama ahead, Romney still competitive. I will watch each, and hope you do, too. A voter’s error would be to choose based entirely on debate. It should supplement, not supplant, what we learn from Google, book and magazine.

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  • Twenty years ago this month, I helped advise George H.W. Bush for his presidential debates with Bill Clinton and Ross Perot.
    My work included memoranda, sound-bite phrase and humor — the quotable quote, we hoped, watercooler buzz. It somehow seemed important then. Now it seems as useless to the presidency as more rehab for Lindsay Lohan.
    By Oct. 22, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney will have thrice debated on television. Their race is within the margin of error: Obama ahead, Romney still competitive. I will watch each, and hope you do, too. A voter’s error would be to choose based entirely on debate. It should supplement, not supplant, what we learn from Google, book and magazine.
    Once upon a time — before TV, which is to some prehistoric — political debate prized substance more than style. Lincoln and Douglas defined mano a mano. In 1948, Thomas E. Dewey demolished Harold Stassen on NBC Radio, becoming Republican nominee. Voice counted, as well as fact and logic — how you thought, not looked.
    Television u-turned those priorities. Today, debates can reward what doesn’t count (appearance, reaction time, glibness) and minimize what does (character, honor, intellect). The presidency requires a person deep as a river. Watching, you and I should demand candidate answers that aren’t as shallow as a spoon.
    TV’s first presidential debates pivoted 1960. A champion debater, Richard Nixon accepted John Kennedy’s bid of four network tussles. In the first, Nixon was sick, sweaty and ill-shaven. Kennedy oozed a James Dean-meet-FDR sort of charm. He won the kinetic tube — and the election by a whisker. “We couldn’t have made it without TV,” JFK said of his payoff. We’ve been paying since.
    Style didn’t prevent Kennedy’s Bay of Pigs, being bullied by Nikita Khrushchev at the Vienna summit, or inventing a non-existent U.S.-Soviet “missile gap.” Nixon’s lack didn’t preclude later visiting China, forging arms limitations or achieving peace with honor in Vietnam. The man with the better TV tan was not the better foreign policy president.
    Somehow America survived not having debates in the 1964, 1968 or 1972 presidential campaign. We might have gained from not having 1976’s between the verbally challenged Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford. Later, as president, Carter linked 20 percent inflation and interest rates, gas lines and U.S. hostages seized by Iran. Debating, he seemed no worse than Ford.
    In 1984, Ronald Reagan lost the first debate to Walter Mondale. It didn’t stop his winning the Cold War. 1992: Bush kept looking at his watch. He would rather have been in the Oval Office, forging a New World Order. That same year, Clinton exuded glitz. It didn’t prevent perjury or obstruction of justice — nor create his lollapalooza of an economy. At best, debates inform, not predict.
    Page 2 of 2 - In 2000, George W. Bush was said to outdebate Al Gore. (In truth, Gore’s smirking and sighing beat himself.) Victory by default didn’t save us from Bush’s toxic spending, bloated federal budget or unpopularity that put Obama in the White House. This month, recall Obama’s record, Romney’s campaign and presidents before video. Would Washington be thought too stiff; Jackson, gauche; Lincoln, gaunt? Which, if any, would survive TV now?
    Today’s voter has access to information undreamt of 20 years ago: the computer; iPod; iPad; conservative journals like The Weekly Standard; subculture video like Fox News Channel; cable television of every ideology, affiliation and hue.
    Sample as many as possible, watch each debate and reach your consensus on common sense. Who can restore the economy? Who best grasps American exceptionalism? Who can keep us respected abroad? Far more than a quotable quote, that’s what really counts.
    Curt Smith is the author of 15 books, former speechwriter to President George H.W. Bush, and senior lecturer of English at the University of Rochester in New York. E-mail: curtsmith@netacc.net
     
     
     
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