When I was growing up, my family would, on certain nights, put aside our regular activities to crowd around the living room TV. Sometimes the occasion was a cultural event like "Roots," but what I mainly remember was gathering during election seasons to watch as the presidential candidates stood side by side to debate each other. Scheduled infrequently, occurring live, aired on all the networks, and moderated by a distinguished host, these public contests always possessed a certain grandeur. However flawed the parties' nominees, the joint appearances demanded our attention because they were taking seriously the challenges of democracy.
These days the presidential debates are in sad shape. They provoke little interest beyond the predictable horse-race scenarios. Last winter, a dozen-odd primary season debates droned on interminably to general public indifference. Four years ago the general election contests were so vapid that all we can recall is that Al Gore somehow managed to squander his slim lead by the time they were over. The problem isn't simply, as is often remarked, that today's contests don't measure up to the Lincoln-Douglas matches; they don't even stack up to the Ford-Carter debates.
The debates are dull because they're predictable. They've become formulaic. The same (or interchangeable) talking heads ask the same (or interchangeable) questions and solicit the same (or interchangeable) answers. Every candidate knows how to prepare, staging rehearsals in which they practice their sound-bites while a staffer plays the role of the opponent. When the debate rolls around, not even the jokes are spontaneous.
What to do? Alas, the Commission on Presidential Debates can't replace the candidates themselves. But it can do something that would be just as salutary, if not more so: End the journalism world's monopoly on seats at the moderator's table--and bring in real experts to grill the candidates. After all, the questions display no more creativity or independent thinking than the answers. Topics range from standard-issue policy matters (questions that are satisfied by the canned recitation of a position paper) to easily evaded "gotcha" traps to the invariably tame "wild card" query ("Who is your hero?"). Rarely do they result in our learning something new.
Perhaps worst of all, the moderators have lost their authority. The gravitas once exuded by old-time anchors like Howard K. Smith and Edwin Newman has dissipated in a miasma of round-the-clock off-the-cuff punditry. Voters now view TV journalists not as their thoughtful, disinterested proxies in interrogating the candidates but as just another crop of missionaries from inside the Beltway. With due respect to Jim Lehrer, no Cronkite or Brinkley commands universal esteem anymore.
Which is why it's time to cut Lehrer and his peers out of the proceedings altogether. Instead, let's bring in a new breed of questioner. Not just anyone, but our most respected professionals who have devoted their lives to thinking about our social and political problems and what makes for a successful president. Who would be the panelists? Betraying a professional bias, I'd include a historian. History doesn't have answers to current problems, but an able historian may help provide some perspective beyond the frenzy over the issue of the day. Given the never-ending interest in presidential "character," it might be worthwhile to add a psychoanalyst to the panel, who could extend the discussion of personality beyond the airing of scurrilous private details. Next, maybe a political theorist, to examine the candidates' philosophies. Finally, perhaps, a top educator or college president.
Each debate could feature questioners from different fields. Given today's concerns, foreign policy or even Middle East experts might make up the whole panel on one occasion. Other sessions might feature economists, sociologists, doctors, jurists, scientists, clergymen--or, for that matter, novelists, artists, composers, playwrights, filmmakers, and poets. For good measure, let them handle the instant analysis for the next 24 hours as well, if only to spare the viewing public the pedestrian thoughts of Tim Russert, Cokie Roberts, and their ilk.
At the least, bringing in some fresh blood would make the debates intriguing again. The public, which is generally tired of the television blowhards, might just feel that questions of relevance and originality are being posed. At best, turning to our most distinguished thinkers during a momentous collective decision would signal that we still believe that knowledge, expertise, and thoughtfulness count for something. Which, presumably, is why we have debates in the first place.
David Greenberg is assistant professor of History and Journalism & Media Studies at Rutgers University and the author of Nixon's Shadow: The History of an Image and Calvin Coolidge.
By David Greenberg