The Great Debate Debate

In which Will Durst deconstructs Bush’s debate fear and discovers that the candidate and his handlers wish he could just not have to open his mouth until November.

Fight disinformation. Get a daily recap of the facts that matter. Sign up for the free Mother Jones newsletter.

The big political brouhaha this week is the debate over the debate about the debates. It seems Gore and Bush have gotten so darn wound up, they can’t even agree on how to disagree.

See, the deal is, back in 1987, both parties formed an “independent” commission that would organize the debates in order to remove responsibility from the slimy clutches of those synchronized sleazemeisters we have come to know and love as our presidential candidates.

I guess even the parties realized these square white hunks of naked ambition tend to act in their own self-interests over the public’s the same way a ravenous turkey vulture would rather feast on antelope carrion than do long division. And no, I don’t mean to defame the memory of Lee Atwater. That was you projecting.

And, oh yeah, let’s not forget the fact the commission is made up of Democrats and Republicans. That’s what makes them so nonpartisan-like.

Third party candidates, however, need not apply. And any outsider candidate seeking entrance to the debates is gently encouraged to go down to Texas and listen to H. Ross Perot yammer on about the Republican Dirty Tricks Squad.

After consulting various sage communications experts (also known as former campaign staffers), the commission settled this year on a format of three October debates. But then Gore, the Eternal Student Council President, muddied the waters, proclaiming he is willing to debate “anywhere, anytime.” Mister Smarty Pants is obviously feeling a little cocky, and his strategy is to go long.

Bush countered, accepting only one of the commission debates, while suggesting two more September meetings, one each on NBC’s “Meet the Press” and CNN’s “Larry King Live”. This further reinforces the impression that he’s not the sharpest knife in the drawer; he’s more like that slotted wooden spoon that got caught in the garbage disposal. He’s trying to exercise preemptive damage control by appearing on two network shows, with an audience of about a third of the normal debates. He’d really prefer to get together over a couple double decaf lattes at the local Starbucks in front of a second cousin who takes shorthand and a blind police sketch artist.

Dubyah probably chose Tim Russert and Larry King not only because they aren’t “major-league assholes” in his eyes, but also because he got fairly good marks on his last appearances on their shows, although the bar was set pretty low at that time. Just the fact that he didn’t refer to the President of Cuba as “Fidel Crisco” was cause for GOP stalwarts to breathe a huge sigh of relief.

It will all get settled pretty quickly, meaning as soon as the situational polls come in, or maybe it won’t and there won’t be any debates at all, and then no one wins, except of course the networks who won’t have to preempt their stellar fall lineup of wacky zany sitcoms.

There’s your bottom-line answer: Call it the Al and George Show. Might work better all around with a laughtrack.

We Recommend


Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.


Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.