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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.

ONE MORE THING ABOUT AL SHARPTON and these debates, if I may be permitted abruptly and wholly to contradict myself, tonally at least. So long as we're going to pretend that Al Sharpton is just another presidential candidate, worthy of the same attention, and a fit object for the same questions, that we give, say, John Kerry, doesn't logic--and simple decency--require that we not simultaneously undermine the fiction by deliberately humiliating the man? What do you suppose Peter Jennings was thinking when he requested that Sharpton explain his "views on monetary policy" and describe the sorts of people--"name someone in particular, if you have someone in mind"--a Sharpton administration would nominate to the Federal Reserve Board? I'll tell you what he was thinking: Sharpton can't answer this question, nyuck, nyuck, nyuck; let's watch him squirm. Sure enough, Sharpton couldn't answer the question, and squirmed a bit. And sure enough, once he was done squirming, Jennings--with the supercilious and largely unearned condescension for which he's famous--right away announced Sharpton's F grade to the entire class: "Forgive me, Reverend Sharpton, but the question was actually about the Federal Reserve Board." Nanny, nanny, boo boo. What a clod.

In a related vein, I was struck by Jennings' novel twist on the old "what's the price of milk" gambit, the one where the weisenheimer journalist, knowing the question will draw a blank, asks some would-be president about a basic, quotidian activity like grocery shopping--the point being to make the politician look Out of Touch with the Lives and Concerns of Ordinary Americans. This stuff is inevitably unfair. For instance: I myself am an ordinary American, at least insofar as I regularly purchase milk at the supermarket, but the truth is, I don't have any idea how much it costs, either. I've got to buy it 'cause the kids drink it, so it goes in the cart, and then I pay the total bill, and then I throw away the receipt.

Anyhow, Peter Jennings, who makes 300 squillion dolllars a year, probably has a whole team of ABC assistant producers who do his grocery shopping for him, so the milk question is off the table. But he can still ask John Edwards the highbrow version--the point being to make Edwards seem Out of Touch with the Lives and Concerns of Ordinary People Who Aren't Americans, people who live thousands of miles away on other continents who happen to worship Allah. Senator Edwards, Jennings asked, "could you take a minute to tell us what you know about the practice of Islam that would reassure Muslims throughout the world who will be listening to you that President Edwards understands their religion . . . ?" Edwards floundered around on this question for an agonizing half minute or so before just barely making an escape from total embarrassment. But damage was done in the process: "I would never claim to be an expert" on Islam, Edwards acknowledged midway through his ramble--which is the kind of concession a part-of-one-term senator who's asking to be made president can't afford to be making very often. And the damage was done unfairly, I think. How much do any of us typically know about religions not our own? I mean really know, to the point where we'd feel qualified to offer summary characterizations of those doctrines on national television? Not me: The risk of giving offense would be too great.

Here's one for Peter Jennings: Could you take a minute to tell us what you know about the practice of Islam that would reassure Muslims throughout the world, whose religion you yourself have just announced faces a possible looming "confrontation" with "the West"? What's your favorite Sura in the Koran, Peter? Come on, don't be shy.

I SUPPOSE THE WES CLARK MOMENT PEOPLE WILL MAKE MOST OF was the one where he was offered repeated opportunities to dissociate himself from his celebrity endorser Michael Moore's suggestion that President Bush was once a military "deserter." Okay, it was a pretty amazing scene, especially that business where Clark suggested--who knows?--it might actually be true: "I've seen this charge bandied about a lot. . . . he's not the only person who's said that." Memo to Gen. Clark: Politicians of the presidential variety aren't supposed to publicly speculate about slanderous gossip they've heard. Just isn't done.

Neither, though, are they supposed to reveal themselves as clueless about elemental national political controversies. Kinda makes people nervous. I'm referring here to Gen. Clark's pathetic exchange with Jennings about abortion. Was I the only one, or did anybody else out there notice that Clark, who seemed unprepared to do more than summarize the Supreme Court's holdings in Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey, couldn't do even that without repeatedly drifting his eyeballs down to a cheatsheet he'd obviously brought with him to the podium? Even Al Sharpton could have done better than that.

I'VE MENTIONED JOHN EDWARDS' "I'M NO EXPERT" REMARK about Islam. He made the same mistake again later in the debate, this time when questioned about gay marriage and the federal Defense of Marriage Act. "I don't claim to be an expert on this," he said. What was particularly interesting about this second--again, unfortunate--I dunno admission was that it revolved around the question whether other states should be required to recognize, and thereby offer their own government benefits on the basis of, civil union and gay marriage contracts entered under the laws of states like Hawaii and Howard Dean's Vermont. And what was interesting about Edwards' plea of ignorance was that here, I can't help suspecting that he wasn't telling the truth. "I think it's a decision"--yea or nay on gay marriage, etc--"that should be made on a state-by-state basis," Edwards offered. But he claimed to oppose the Defense of Marriage Act because "as I understand" it, that law forbids states ever to decide the answer should be yea.

Edwards' asserted "understanding" of the Defense of Marriage Act is wrong, of course. But that's not the point. The point, instead, is that the position he claimed to prefer, that each state be permitted to decide for itself whether to honor civil unions sanctioned by Howard Dean's Vermont, necessarily veers into constitutional territory I have to believe an unimpeachably accomplished attorney like Edwards knows cold--and has known cold since law school: Article IV, Section 1 of the Constitution. This stuff is complicated, there's no "obvious" correct answer. But nevertheless, our next question goes to Senator Edwards: Sir, how do you square your stated views on interstate reciprocity and gay marriages or civil unions with the "full faith and credit" clause?

David Tell is opinion editor of The Weekly Standard.