The Blog

Debate Afterthoughts

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

8:30 AM, Jan 23, 2004 • By DAVID TELL
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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.