Saturday, September 27, 2008

Trivial Pursuit

Well, most of the commentary I consulted last night had John McCain winning his debate with Barack Obama. Given my political leanings I guess I should be pleased about this, but I'm not, particularly. I want to ask these people how they define a win. The experts I heard and read mentioned fine points of delivery, factual errors by Obama, a little testiness showing around the Illinois senator's mouth, a level of disrespect manifested by his calling McCain by his first name, and on and on. I find all this very annoying. I personally feel presidential debates, as they're usually conducted, are a waste of time and especially so if the winner is decided on the sort of scoring that would be more appropriate to a high school speech and debate tournament or a beauty contest.

We're electing neither a debater-in-chief nor a beauty queen. An error or two, a stumble or stammer, mean nothing in terms of the kind of president a candidate would make. The media treats these events as if they were dancing competitions and whoever scores the most style points in the dance wins the prize.

Much of the post-debate television commentary centered around whether either man committed a blunder or got off a zinger, as if McCain and Obama were auditioning for a comedy club rather than the White House. Undecided voters watch the debates looking for the slightest reason not to vote for one candidate or the other, and the criteria they use are often totally irrelevant to a man's qualifications to be president. Richard Nixon fared poorly in the first ever television debate with John Kennedy in 1960 because he had a "5 o'clock shadow" and visibly sweated from the hot studio lights. JFK, on the other hand, seemed cool, calm, and vigorous even though he was debilitated by back pain that his handlers managed to conceal from the public. Viewers later reported that they voted for Kennedy because he "looked more attractive".

The media, by the way they stage and analyze these dog and pony shows, implicitly encourage us to evaluate our candidates in terms of their personality, eloquence, charm, grace and appearance, none of which are particularly indicative of the kind of president a man would be. We're manipulated by the media into electing a celebrity rather than a leader. It's as shallow as it is depressing.

Last March I wrote the following post. I repeat it today, slightly edited, because I think it's even more timely now than it was then:

The media continue to trivialize our politics by treating the presidential campaign as though it were a board game in which gaffes, scandals, missteps and debate zingers all get tallied up to delight the talking heads and newspaper columnists. Meanwhile, the voting public wishes they'd grow up and start doing their job. They can begin by pressing the candidates to answer some urgent questions and holding their feet to the fire until they do. Here are five questions with which each candidate should be confronted at the earliest opportunity, and they should be badgered for answers every time they make a public appearance until they finally produce them:

1) The National Intelligence Estimate notwithstanding, the consensus seems to be that Iran is still engaged in the production of a nuclear device. The Iranians have threatened to use such a weapon against Israel once they have it. What will you do if Iran (or North Korea, for that matter) persists in pursuing a nuclear weapon? Please do not answer that you will sit down and talk with their leaders. The question presupposes that all such diplomatic efforts have failed. How far are you prepared to go to stop Iran or North Korea from obtaining a nuclear weapon?

2) The sub-prime mortgage crisis and the falling dollar have placed us on the verge of a global economic recession. What, precisely, will you do about the crisis we are facing? Please don't answer with platitudes about "hope" and "change", "yes, we can", and "mavericks". What measures will you take, that the Bush administration has not taken, to fix the problem?

3) Illegal immigrants are flooding into this country and placing enormous burdens upon our schools, hospitals, justice system, and welfare system. What, if anything, do you propose to do to stop the flow of illegal immigration? Please be specific. Telling us that we must secure our border is vague and unhelpful. Please state exactly what you propose to do, if anything, to secure the border.

4) Please name a Supreme Court justice, current or former, who would be most similar to a nominee that you would select for the court or federal bench should the opportunity arise during your presidency.

5) Exactly how do you propose that we achieve energy independence from the Middle East? Do you believe such independence is possible without exploiting the petroleum resources we have within our own borders and without building more nuclear power plants?

If the media neglect to ask these questions and to demand answers they will have failed to meet their responsibility to the public. If the questions are asked, but the candidates refuse to give clear answers then the candidates will have failed the voters, who will be given little upon which to base a responsible vote.