Fresh Ideas: Electing our Homecoming King

This is for anyone who has ever watched a presidential or vice-presidential debate. What have you taken away from it? Here's what I've learned from our venerable debates.

In the one between Jack Kennedy and Richard Nixon, I saw that television reveals all, especially a poorly shaved face. Nixon's five o'clock shadow, more than anything he said in the debate, caused his defeat. In addition to good looks, ideally we'd probably prefer our presidents to be "royals" and cowboys at the same time.

So, are there any pearls of wisdom our debates have bestowed on posterity? Reagan struck gold with "I've paid for this microphone!" as well as his "There you go again." Lloyd Bentsen (running for VP against Dan Quayle) won his debate with "I knew Jack Kennedy, and you're no Jack Kennedy."

Why, I ask myself in frustration, do I remember these meaningless phrases, these so-called clever quips? I tell myself a debate is not a sitcom. But we're all primed, breathlessly ready for a smart-alecky remark, for some sign of magnetism, charisma or a lively personality. It seems that what we're really looking for is a first-class salesman. It's not so much what a candidate says, but how he says it. Gone are the days when character counted. We've learned from Dale Carnegie that "winning friends and influencing people" counts for much more in the marketplace.

The conviction that debates can "make or break" candidates has a dark side as well. It fosters that less charitable side of our natures, the side that delights in seeing the high and mighty fall. So we offer those devilish prayers that a candidate inadvertently do himself in with an ill-advised word or phrase, as Gov. Dukakis did in 1988 when asked if he'd be for the death penalty if his wife were raped and murdered and he responded that he had always been opposed to the death penalty.

Are we really surprised to learn that social scientists (and their focus groups) often analyze candidates for office by turning off the sound of the television so they can better analyze body language? No wonder talking heads, the pundits on television or the "expert guests" discuss at length the significance of women not liking any man who rolls his eyes. And callers to CNN tell us listeners, "I didn't understand anything they were talking about, but I really didn't like the way X looked at Y when he was speaking."

Talk about a public (us) that values style over substance. What we value above all apparently is entertainment. And let's not kid ourselves. What we have on television are not authentic debates. They're memorized responses. Everything is canned because there is no room for error. It's not the time or place for careful thought, only for regurgitation. The sad thing is that too many political managers want debates handled this way.

Why do we talk about who "won" any debate? Are we electing a salesman-in-chief or a leader of a nation? And even more significantly, who leads these discussions on winning or losing? Yes, it's our faithful media friends who, in essence, "crown" the Homecoming King. They prove the American adage: what's good for business is good for the country.

Instead of debates, I'd like to see us adopt columnist George Will's idea that presidential candidates be given a question, a pad of paper and pen, and then be locked into his/her own room for one hour. There, each one could think and write his/her response. Afterwards, the candidates would come on stage, in front of the audience (and TV cameras) and read their responses. That's it. We could then evaluate the candidates ourselves with no help from moderators or pundits. Not every candidate would reveal himself to be an Abraham Lincoln or Thomas Jefferson, but wouldn't that be the point?

We could adapt this approach locally, too. Perhaps the Women League of Voters could arrange just such a competition, if not this year, then next election. I'm guessing that this might be a polite way to discourage less-qualified candidates from running for office and encourage those who would be an asset to our city and state to throw their hats into the ring.

• Ursula Carlson, Ph.D., is professor emerita at Western Nevada College.


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