Thursday, September 30, 2004

Watching the Beauty Contest

Assessing the kind of president a man would be on the basis of a debate performance is like judging the kind of wife and mother a woman would be on the basis of a beauty contest. Whatever charms she dazzles us with in her swimsuit are really quite irrelevant to the judgment we have to make, and it would only be a callow young man, in thrall to his hormones, who would think otherwise.

The audience will sit on tenterhooks tonight waiting for one or the other speaker to make some trivial "gaffe" and then seize upon it as a reason to vote for the other guy. It's a ludicrous exercise. It debases our democracy and insults the intelligence of its citizens. In their promos for the debate the networks have been replaying what they consider to be the highlights, the salient moments, of past debates. They wax nostalgic over Nixon's heavy beard, Kennedy's attractiveness, Reagan's "there you go again" and his witticism about Mondale's "youth and inexperience," Bentson's ad hominem attack against Quayle, Bush '41's glance at his watch, Gore's oafish sighing and striding across the stage to try to stare down Bush, Jr., and so on.

These are the things people remember from past debates, but with the exception of Gore's buffoonery, perhaps, none of these events tells us what kind of leader a man would be. They may tell us whether the man is likeable or not, but there's no demonstrated connection between likeability and presidential ability. Both Clinton and Reagan were likeable, but you can find plenty of people who would argue that Clinton was a terrible president and probably just as many could be found to argue that Reagan was.

Aside from being an exercise in media auto-eroticism the debates do little more than satisfy the public's desire to turn everything into a spectacle or a game. Who will "win" the debate? It doesn't matter. The winner is whoever is most attractive to the audience. Viewers will not score these debates as if they were really forensics competitions, or as if they were genuine attempts to get at some deep political truth. Indeed, it wouldn't matter if they did because they're not going to vote for the guy who is the technical winner anyway unless he happens coincidentally to be the most articulate, or the best looking, or the most charming, or the wittiest, or the most relaxed guy on the stage.

Ninety five percent of the people watching the debates have already decided for whom they will vote, and they will not be swayed by anything that is said by Kerry or Bush. The other five percent, in an ideal world, should be dissuaded from voting at all. If they haven't decided by now what could they possibly be waiting for? Whatever it is, it can't be substantive because anything of importance that we're going to learn about these two gentlemen has been out there in the public arena for months or years. They can only be waiting for some superficial word or gesture that would rationalize a vote for one of the contenders. If that's the purpose of having these debates, however, to give a handful of people who couldn't care less about their responsibilities as citizens some trivial reason to cast their vote for one or the other candidate, then we're wasting our time.

Even so, I guess I'll watch it. Sometimes even a beauty contest can be interesting.