The third presidential debate has come and gone, as useless and devoid of any contact with reality as the previous two: debates in which the color of a shirt, the fit of a jacket or a posture behind a podium were more important than what the candidates had to say, which was preciously little anyway, and in which the main rhetorical exercise was the endless repetition of scripted and dull sound bites (“”fuzzy math, fuzzy math,”” “”fight for the people, fight for the people.””). of just the right length to be inserted the next day in the prime-time news, plagued by chronic attention-deficit disorder.
Are these two individuals the best that America can offer in A.D. 2000? Three weeks before the vote, both candidates are such prisoners of the race to the center that it is almost impossible to get an unscripted word out of them, and the only political art they seem to have mastered is that of dodging questions, uttering blurbs on their favorite topics in lieu of answers. For the rest, the whole question seems to hinge on “”leadership qualities”” or, to put it in another way, on how good they look on TV.
The world is watching, at times appalled, perplexed or downright incredulous. The idea that a political debate should have a winner, like a cheap sport game or a “”Mr. America”” pageant, leaves the world masses bedazzled. The concept that, for one of the two candidates it will be a considerable success just to get through the debates without making a fool of himself, is outright comic. The fact that citing programs and details, calling bills by names and citing data is considered a minus, while talking by hazy generalities, of principles and, in general, “”looking presidential”” without saying anything substantial is considered the real winning strategy, leaves the world in a mystified stupor.
Reading the foreign press these days, the embarrassment is palpable of the Washington correspondents trying to explain to their readership that knowing what one is talking about, or even just talking about something, is considered a losing strategy.
In a serious political system, George W. Bush would not even be considered for the local Parent Teacher Association, and Al Gore would barely make it as a mayor in a mid-sized city. Yet, here they are, hat-in-hand, asking the electorate to trust that they will do a good job as leaders of the most complex country in the world.
Gore is credited to have the competence to do the job (he might as well have: after all, he’s been around the White House for eight years), while, by admission of his own supporters, Bush might not. This statement has been repeated so often in the last months that we have grown numb to its monstrosity: About half of this country is ready to give the White House to an incompetent frat boy who almost flunked college and made it only because of his dad’s name. I am not sure what it says about the state of our democracy, but it cannot be good.
A few days ago, I was watching an interview with Ralph Nader on UCSD-TV. Answering the question of how he would reduce the military budget, he started citing specific programs and military orientation that, according to the experts of the Pentagon, are a waste of money and are doing nothing for American interests. He then proceeded to show how these savings could amount to $100 billion, even using part of the savings to increase the pay of the military personnel, and still not affect national security. He showed, citing data and statistics, how this money could be used to reduce the gap between the few rich and the many poor in the country.
You may disagree politically with Nader about the desirability of government intervention in certain areas, but you must admit that he knows what he is talking about. You will not hear him on network TV, because an analysis such as his cannot be compressed in a three-second sound bite. You can probably find him on C-Span, so judge for yourself. You would be hard- pressed to find any of these facts in the presidential debates.
All we could deduce from the debates is that Bush is no friend of English grammar (he has some very personal ideas on the agreement between subject and verb) and that, instead of administering the surplus intelligently for the times in which the economy will not be so good, we should squander it on a tax cut for the wealthy, and gamble the country’s retirement safety net on the stock market.
Gore responded with that terrible statement, which I wish I had never heard coming from a Democrat, that the whole Kosovo campaign had been resolved without a single human casualty. Evidently Serbs, Kosovars and Albanians are members of some subhuman race. He corrected the statement to say “”no loss of American lives,”” but too late and to no avail: His Christian upbringing should have taught him that a Serb or an Albanian life is as precious as an American life.
The truth is that we have not seen three debates between two politicians: We saw a duel between two actors, with completely scripted parts, looking for the right occasion to repeat the same sound bite over and over: “”fuzzy math, fuzzy math.”” and, fortunately, Bush’s coaches dug out the term “”fuzzy;”” I doubt he could have pronounced a term like “”indistinct”” or “”obscure.”” The candidates worried that the color of their shirts would look good on TV and went on trying to pull the next trick from a well-stocked bag.
One thing is clear from the presidential debate: Reality has completely left the political arena. In the age of TV everything is reduced to the same mish-mash of entertainment, glitter and fantasy. Nader and libertarian candidate Harry Browne — the latter with opinions I personally disapprove of but, then again, disagreement is supposed to be the juice of democracy — deal with reality, and therefore they had no place in the debates or in the current political panorama.
We look at the debates as we look at the Oscar ceremony: with an eye to the clothes, another eye to the after-ceremony parties and an almost complete disregard for cinema. Modern elections are the political Oscars: the glitter attracts viewer, we want to see whether the politicians look good, if they look tired or if they put on weight. The underlying political activity does not really matter, as long as it provides the material for a good show. Unfortunately, if the polls continue to go this way, this year the Oscar will go to Forrest Gump.