MAXWELL: Public too focused on the trivialities

10/8/2000 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


“Debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide open, and that . . . may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials,” wrote Justice William Brennan in New York Times v. Sullivan (1964).

Brennan was right, at least for his time. But were he alive today to hear what are masquerading as presidential debates on public issues, Brennan would be appalled. Contemporary? Recent debates, especially last Tuesday’s matchup between Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush, insult the intelligence of well-informed citizens who are active in public life.

Next to candidates having proven records of governance, debate may be the best way for voters to judge candidates’ fitness for office. Keep in mind that Bush had to be forced into debating Gore.

Presidential candidates have an obligation to share their views and positions with the public. And I believe, as did rhetoric scholar Karl Wallace, in the “moralities of communication.” Writing at the end of Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s downfall during the 1950s, Wallace argued that during public discourse, politicians are obligated to inquire and search, to be fair, accurate and just in their argument, be willing to tolerate dissent and submit private motivations to public scrutiny.

The public has a right to know everything _ including private motivations _ about the person who would be president of the United States of America. To get elected, the candidates often make promises (“Read my lips. No new taxes.”) that they do not intend to keep.

Sound bites and ads are inadequate tools for informing the public. Moreover, sound bites and ads often intentionally mislead.

“The likelihood that the public will be misled is minimized if the competing views are available and tested by advocates, audiences, and the press, if all sides engage in warranted argument, and if they accept responsibility for defending their own claims and the claims others offer on their behalf,” writes Kathleen Hall Jamieson in her recent book, Everything You Think You Know About Politics . . . And Why You’re Wrong. “This concept sounds idealistic, but unless a certain critical degree of substantive interchange is preserved among candidates, the people, and the media that control encounters, the possibility of a critical information deficit will exist.”

The first Gore-Bush debate failed Brennan’s test of “uninhibited,” “robust,” and “wide open” engagement, and _ from the Bush side _ it lacked the “substantive interchange” that Jamieson calls for.


The reason is that most voters, according to polls, still taste the rhetorical bile of the Gingrich Era and have let Gore and Bush operatives know as much. They do not want rough edges and tough talk. They prefer candidates who kiss their wives in public, claim Jesus as their hero, have nice parents, pick up babies and pet dogs. The direct result is that the candidates have been cowed into phony civility and non-wonkish utterances.

Neither candidate, particularly Gore, is willing to be polemical.

Gore is the biggest loser in this new environment of sweetness and light. Bush, for example, merely had to show up in Boston and not sound goofy. Gore, on the other hand, had to suppress his intellect, his ability to deliver encyclopedic explanations of complex policy and his natural tendency to take charge and lead.

Aware of Americans’ changed mood toward vehement speech and their native anti-intellectualism, Gore’s main goal was to be as nice as he could, to put on a benign, “common man” demeanor. The United States is one of the few major nations in the world that dislikes intellect in their politicians. Given this fact and the call for civility, Gore was prevented from forcing Bush into coughing up more facts and other substantive material. He had to pussyfoot.

Here is what Democratic Party general chairman Edward Rendell told the New York Times about Gore’s performance: “Had Al Gore gone up there and convinced people that he was Bob Newhart, maybe he would have scored a knockout. But Al Gore’s not a Bob Newhart. That’s not going to happen.”

A Providence (Rhode Island) Journal editorial gushed over Bush’s “pleasant temperament” and how he remained “congenial” under “Gore’s assaults.” The Orange County Register’s editorial board had a serious problem with the debate: “Another disappointment was the lack of anything like humor. We didn’t expect witty repartee from these two, but humor can be a lighter way to make a valid point and signal that a candidate doesn’t take himself too seriously.”

Gore and Bush are running for president, not for a role in a situation comedy. Frankly, the winner in November can be a complete grump as long as he can keep the economy going, handle the likes of Slobodan Milosevic, console the nation in time of tragedy, keep our military out of war.

Gore has been accused of smirking, sighing and waving his hand during the debate. He is also accused of being stiff and wooden. Hell, he has had these traits all of his life, and yet he has been a competent senator and a hard-working, effective vice president.

In truth, such trivialities have little if anything to do with effective governance.

As a columnist, editorial writer and former teacher who takes politics seriously, I cannot resist quoting Henry David Thoreau: “I believe that the mind can be permanently profaned by the habit of attending to trivial things, so that all our thoughts shall be tinged with triviality.”

Too many Americans _ who will be voting next month _ are hooked on trivia and consider a presidential debate less important than, say, the first installment of Fox network’s Dark Angel, a one-hour drama about a genetically engineered woman with the strength of Superman and Samson combined.

Nielsen Media Research reports that 17.4-million people chose this junk over the debate. NBC thought that the first game of the American League Division Series, between the New York Yankees and the Oakland Athletics, was more important than Gore and Bush. One will become the most important leader in the world.

One of journalists’ big questions: “Do you want Al Gore or George W. Bush in your living room for the next four years?” In other words, do you want to be entertained by congenial dude from Texas or governed by a politician who has proven himself both nationally, internationally _ and in combat in Vietnam.

The question itself, which is being answered by many people, invites a pop culture response.

So much for enlightenment and “uninhibited,” “robust,” “wide open” debate on the most important issues facing our nation _ a democracy where, at least theoretically, an informed and engaged citizenry protects our cherished freedoms.