The first presidential debate is over and the loser was . . . moderator Jim Lehrer.
Lehrer was fair to Al Gore and George W. Bush and his questions were fine. He was just powerless to get Gore or Bush to give straight answers to most of them.
Gore set the tone on the first question. Lehrer asked him what he meant when he questioned Bushs experience. Instead, Gore took about two seconds to dodge the question (denying -- falsely -- that he had done any such thing) and go off on the first of many boring three-minute canned speeches on his tax program.
Bush was no better. Even when Lehrers questions were pointed and seemingly left no wiggle room, Bush resorted to generalities and platitudes. If he was slightly more spontaneous than Gore, that is not saying much since Gore hardly ever says anything spontaneous.
There is a remedy for this, but it wont happen this year: let Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan into the debates.
The straight-talking qualities that make Nader and Buchanan unelectable make them excellent foils in a presidential debate. They can say what they think, and as television veterans, theyre articulate, skillful debaters. Nader dislikes celebrity and doesnt pander. Buchanan is more of a ham, but just as uncompromising as Nader.
If allowed to join the debates, they would do what Lehrer tried but, for the most part, failed to do. They would bring the views of Gore and Bush into sharp relief, make them answer the questions, and keep them from wandering off into platitudes.
Best of all, they would make the debates interesting, both by their own answers and feistiness and by bringing out at least some of the real differences between Gore and Bush.
With all the qualifications in the world, Lehrer couldnt do that. He gamely interrupted a few times and tried to get the candidates back on point or to limit their comments to the agreed-upon time limits. But by the unwritten rules, both Gore and Bush were happy to let the other evade and shade the rules. Anything but candor, because in candor there is the possibility of making a gaffe. Bush and Gore were like two boxers afraid to mix it up, secretly relieved at not having to take a real punch or throw one.
But throw a brawler like Buchanan or a crusader like Nader into the ring and things would get interesting. Then the haymakers would fly. Then Bush and Gore would have to stop shadow-boxing and defend themselves.
The reason that wont happen, aside from the fact that the debate schedules have already been set, is that Nader and Buchanan would each likely get an immediate boost in the polls, perhaps to the 10-percent level or higher. Thats what happened to Jesse Ventura when he was allowed into the debates between the two major candidates for governor of Minnesota. Before Ventura, Ross Perot in 1992, George Wallace in 1972, and Eugene McCarthy in 1968 showed what a minor candidate can do when given equal time on the national stage. The two major parties and their candidates, of course, dont want it to happen again. So we get boring candidates and boring debates, which are not really debates at all.
What a shame that in America in the last decade we have been given hundreds more television stations and thousands more Internet sites to choose to get information but only two sources in our televised presidential debates.
(You can write John Branston at firstname.lastname@example.org