October 16, 1992

Tips for Debate Watchers

Political debates are sort of like stock-car races -no one really cares who wins, they just want to see the crashes.

Molly Ivins, 1991

If you have never argued with a professional politician, you're in for an enlightening experience. No matter how bright and well informed you happen to be, you'll lose almost every argument. You'll lose them for two reasons: 1. He will have rehearsed the answers to most questions because he has heard them before and memorized the answers. 2. If he hasn't heard the question, he will turn the argument to a question that he has memorized the answer to.

If you expect to find out how well the candidates deal with surprises in a debate, you'll also be disappointed. It may seem as if he is responding spontaneously, but it ain't so.

Watch how a candidate handles a question that he hasn't rehearsed the answer to. Suppose that you ask him "how will you deal with the national debt?" This is a question that he doesn't want to deal with, so he may answer it this way: "That's a very good question. The national debt is a big problem. However, you can't do anything about the debt without a strong economy and the way to have a strong economy is......." He will then spout off on what he thinks makes for a strong economy. He hasn't dealt with the question at all; nor does he intend to.

In the presidential debates, everything that the candidates say will have been carefully rehearsed including the ad lib remarks. While the candidate may be good at thinking on his feet, he is not going to risk making a mistake on national TV, with millions watching him.

The thing that makes this kind of a debate a farce is that there will be no one to keep him from doing this. No one will say "you aren't even attempting to answer the question." There seems to be a gentlemen's(?) agreement that neither candidate will try to pin down the other by keeping him on the issues. The addition of Ross Perot may change the rules, but I doubt it.

A candidate is only as good as his helpers, who will not only throw tough questions at him in advance, but will rehearse the answers with him. If Mike Dukakis had been prepared for that question on how he would feel about capital punishment if his wife was raped and murdered, he wouldn't have blown the answer.

What a candidate has to do is to memorize the answers to a bunch of questions and know how to look sincere. As a TV producer said, if you can fake sincerity, you've got it made. Only one presidential candidate has ever been a professional actor, but most have been very competent amateurs.

A touch of humor is always good, so each candidate will have some quips that he will just wait for an opportunity to deliver. All professional stand-up comedians do it that way. If you only go to one show, you won't realize that most ad lib remarks are well rehearsed. When funny-man Jackie Mason did a genuinely spontaneous bit on the Ed Sullivan show, it almost cost him his career because he hadn't carefully calculated the impact on his host. Sullivan, who believed that Mason had made an obscene gesture with his middle finger, was furious and blacklisted him on TV for a long time. Mason won't make that mistake again, nor will any other performer who has his head screwed on straight. The spontaneity that goes in a nightclub or theater can be a disaster on live TV.

A talk show host or guest has more margin for error. The audience is willing to forgive bloopers, and they may even enhance the show. Not so for political debates; people expect the person they intend to vote for to be perfect; at least to look as perfect as an actor acting the part of a politicians. In short, politics is now Show-biz.

Next column

Return to the Politics Home Page

Return to Ira's Home Page