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Debate Afterthoughts

On Al Sharpton, Wesley Clark, Peter Jennings, and all the rest.

8:30 AM, Jan 23, 2004 • By DAVID TELL
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Manchester, New Hampshire

I MUST POLITELY DISAGREE with my good friend and colleague, Mr. Barnes, the gentleman from around the corner in my office, whose reaction to last night's debate, posted below, suggests a certain good-natured satisfaction with the whole proceeding. Fred says that we scribbler types are often disappointed with presidential debates because they're boring, and fail to highlight whatever truly meaningful differences exist among the candidates, and whatnot--but, but, but. The implication being that there's value even in the boringest, least substantively clarifying debates because somebody always wins, and someone else always loses, and since elections are about winning and losing . . . well, you get the point.

Me, actually, I'm almost never disappointed by these debates, because they're almost never boring--they almost can't be boring--to the candidates themselves, none who has a pulse, at any rate. This is big-time politics at its most fraught and consequential for the human beings most immediately involved. Real careers are at stake. Dick Gephardt's career is over, for example. We're electing a president. I like to see how my next president behaves when the television cameras are on and he's standing next to the other people each of whom is trying to deny him the winner-takes-all-prize he's (usually) been planning his entire working life around. You can tell a lot about a man when his knees are shaking, even figuratively.

Which is one reason why I found this particular debate so exasperating.

Exhibit A: Al Sharpton. Look, I've been enjoying Al Sharpton's presence on the debate stage these past few months as much as the next guy. Scratch that: I've been occasionally grateful for Al Sharpton's undeniable wit and unexpected instinct for humane, tension-breaking courtesy, which has occasionally rendered me--just like the next guy--powerless to remember that Sharpton has no stinkin' business on such a stage to begin with.

But now we're three days out from a primary election that may well settle who the Democratic party's going to nominate for president, and call me old-fashioned, but I think that's kind of important. Howard Dean's had the week that Howard Dean's had. As I say, Dick Gephardt's career is over. And there ARE major policy differences separating the remaining, principal, legitimate candidates. Can't we all just concentrate, here?

If you aren't so much interested in politics, fine: Don't watch. But if you are genuinely interested in politics, as the people who sanction and put together and participate in these debates certainly are, how's about you put 'em together so that the rest of us who are genuinely interested in politics can make real use of them, especially those of them scheduled at such a crucial moment like last night? There's got to be a better way than this one to help undecided voters, and other concerned citizens, and those woe-beset servants of democracy who have to write about it all for a living--there's got to be a better way than this to help us figure out which one of these guys, if any, is genuinely suited to become the most powerful man on earth. The cosmically general, What's Your Position on the Environment-type question--you have 60 seconds to recite the canned answer you've memorized and repeated on the stump 10,000 times already, Senator--is bad enough. But that same type of question, cumulatively eating up gobs of clock time, to Al Sharpton? Still, after all these months, this late in the day? There wasn't a single person on the St. Anselm's College stage last night who thinks Al Sharpton is qualified to be president--or stands of chance of being elected to the job--including Al Sharpton. So why must we any longer pretend to take him seriously ("What is the Sharpton Doctrine of foreign policy," he was asked last night)? And aren't we just a little concerned that by pretending to take Al Sharpton seriously, we're implicating ourselves in an essentially ironic conception of American politics? Or let's be less fancy about it: Doesn't the phrase "this next question goes to Rev. Sharpton," every time it's uttered, unmistakably suggest that the presidential race the Rev. Sharpton's intruding on is a farce?

Come to think of it--and if this weren't "just the Web," I'd probably think about it more before writing it down--doesn't the same complaint fairly apply at this point to Dennis Kucinich, who's every bit as likely as Sharpton to become president, which is to say, not at all? Or Wesley Clark, for that matter, whose knowledge and experience of national politics is every bit as limited as Sharpton's?

But we'll come back to Clark in a moment.