In last week's debate, Al Gore reissued his challenge to Bill Bradley to swear off those empty 30-second ads in favor of twice-weekly debates. Twice weekly? Who does Gore think he is, the host of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? The Democratic duo's last appearance--with its "No, I didn't," "Oh, yes, you did" tone, interspersed with stock lines from speeches--left me wondering whether the debates haven't reached the point of diminishing returns. Long idealized as the noblest form of political discourse, debates are today about as overproduced, overprogrammed and devoid of meaning as the much reviled ads. I stopped counting the canned phrases when I hit 26.
On the Republican side, some critics say the problem is too many candidates. But there would be no spontaneity without the understaffed challengers, from Alan Keyes' keening against the "howling moral void" to Orrin Hatch's cracking wise about how he couldn't lift Steve Forbes' wallet. Just as Lucy and Desi needed the Mertzes, the Democrats could use a foil or two onstage.
Nowadays, consultants even vet the campaign music: Bush's squad recently killed Cat's in the Cradle after realizing the lyrics were about a son who grows up to be just like his remote father. To extract a fresh thought, restive reporters will try anything--surprise, confrontation, rudeness. Lots of luck. It would take nothing short of sodium pentothal delivered at the podium to get Bush to clear up his conflicting statements on abortion. Tell us--do you really mean it when you say you will keep the Republican platform, which would ban all abortions? Are you saying farewell to soccer moms? And no one is more scripted than Forbes. I'm not saying his vacant stare is reminiscent of the Manchurian Candidate. But I wouldn't risk flashing the Queen of Diamonds at him on the campaign trail.
In an effort to crack the candidate's defenses, the Associated Press sent out a whimsical questionnaire asking each candidate to name a few of his favorite things. Keyes refused to answer any questions at all. Too busy filling the moral void, perhaps. Bradley dodged a few. Some replies seemed focus grouped. Asked to list the last book he had read, Donald Trump named A History of the English Speaking Peoples by Winston Churchill. I want to be around for the pop quiz on Chapters 1 through 3. Pat Buchanan--he of the recent soft-on-Hitler p.r. crisis--blithely offered up that he's reading Day of Deceit: The Truth about FDR and Pearl Harbor and that his first car was a German DKW, known as Das Kleine Wunder. Not a trace of handler input there.
Although Bradley had resisted revealing his favorite book, he said in the debate that he liked Joseph Conrad's Victory and even speed-quoted a section. He cautioned that it told us nothing about him other than that he had read the book.
Au contraire, Professor Bradley. So it's old Joe you've been channeling this campaign? Your reluctant venture into the belly of the political beast is a journey into Conrad's heart of darkness. You can bet none of the others are doing such heavy lifting. Bush, who likes Robert Parker mysteries, says he last read a rip-roaring disaster tale, Isaac's Storm by Erik Larson. Now that sounds a lot more like Bush than the Dean Acheson biography he claimed to be reading and was hard-pressed to summarize.