The tortuous cavalcade of presidential primary debates slogs on repetitively like a reality show with no limits—much as Bill Murray faces the same 24 hours again and again in “Groundhog Day.” As I write this, New Hampshire is hosting Real Candidates of Manchester whose GOP characters on ABC Saturday night hurled wild charges like kids splashing in a pool.
The debates feel Homeric, yet—is it possible?—the odyssey is only beginning.
An oft-stated argument for televised debates is that they rev up public interest and, above all, are irresistible draws. Uh-huh, so are auto wrecks.
Yes, I know, The Trumpet and his tidal-wave comb-over have been a three-ring hoot, and televised debates magnify, bulge out and widen it like the mirrors in a fun house. Most media, moreover, don’t merely adore the debates but swoon over them. Giddy is the word I’m looking for. And the multitudes watch the sniggering and swaggering in astonishing numbers. The range so far, say the Nielsen ratings: 24 million viewers in August for the first GOP candidate debate on Fox to 4.5 million MSNBC viewers for Thursday night’s hastily arranged Bernie and Hillary show.
Since the landmark Kennedy-Nixon clashes of 1960, TV debates have become the popular currency and Holy Grail of electioneering, as much a part of our culture as the Super Bowl (minus the clever commercials, sadly). Each debate is dusted off and examined microscopically as if it was treasure from an archeological dig.
Now look, I like science fiction as well as anyone, and televised debates can be an entertaining way to pass an evening in the Twilight Zone. I haven’t missed one, don’t plan to.
But time for a reality check.
Televised debates are the ultimate fantasies and one of the biggest redundancies of presidential campaigns. They reveal little beyond which candidates give the better performances in front of television cameras, after learning their lines as other actors do and practicing looking presidential: strength but warmth, brilliance yet plain folks, the insider’s knowledge without the insider’s mentality. Yes, Bernie Sanders projects realness, but he, too, is a member of this stock company.
After each debate comes the show after the show, conveyor belts of media bullshit under the pretense of analysis and Machiavellian myth spinners pumping up their candidates.
In fact, televised debates mostly emphasize qualities that no thinking voter should desire in a president.
–They stress flashy TV skills over substance. It’s true that the nation’s medium of choice remains TV, apologies to the Internet. And a president who cannot communicate with the nation through TV is at least partially disabled. Not as severely, though, as a TV slick who turns out to be a dope in the Oval Office.
–They stress speedy answers. Candidates so thoroughly practice and cram like students for an exam that surprise questions are a rarity. Yet the candidate who does weigh a question thoughtfully before responding, a trait you’d want in a president, appears flustered, out of touch or just a little bit slow.
–They stress glibness and quick, agile wit (read rehearsed ad libs), the stuff of good TV but not necessarily good leadership. Mr./Madam President, Kim Jong Un has hit South Korea and Japan with nuclear missiles. Got a joke about funny hair?
All of it is theater. So how fitting that the campaign trail’s media crowd includes the show-biz trade paper Variety spitting out live, minute-by-minute blogs of the debates. As in Thursday night:
“But her (Clinton’s) statement gives Sanders an opening to, once again, focus on the corrupting influence of money in politics…” And: “Clinton sees a weakness in Sanders foreign policy…”
What was this, Cam Newton vs. Peyton Manning? Bernie Sanders has said, “Democracy is not a spectator sport.” Perhaps, but it’s often covered like one.
As the nation’s first stand-up comic seriously campaigning for president, Donald Trump is the poster boy for klieg light candidates. He is the logical extension of an incestuous linkage of entertainment, news media and politics. In a broad sense, all work the same street.
Well before Trump sought to make Washington D.C. his zip code, presidential hopefuls began parachuting into late night TV for softball chats with the hosts and 15 minutes of no-fee exposure. While Trump was reportedly blowing much of his fortune in 1992, Bill Clinton was blowing his sax on Arsenio Hall’s show. And most of the current crop of candidates have hit the late-night boards in search of free media and the public affection they hope comes with it.
Media members galore have historically traveled this road across an ever-widening celebrity journalistscape. Most notable today is Megyn Kelly, the Fox anchor who has parlayed Trump’s verbal abuse into abundance, earning a gig with giggly Jimmy Fallon on NBC and another on CBS with Stephen Colbert during Sunday’s post-Super Bowl show, to say nothing of a book deal with HarperCollins.
Call it an extended curtain call, journalism’s latest troubling metaphor for messengers becoming the message. If not for these TV debates, she’d now be just another rising media star, largely obscure beyond Fox, and we’d be just as smart about the candidates of both parties.