Word, war and presidential candidate debates
The Korean war was triggered by Dean Acheson's remark that Korea was outside US concerns. Bill Ratliff comments: The problem of off-hand, hasty, thoughtless or ill-informed remarks being taken for policy is one of the best reasons for not having debates between or among presidential candidates, and it is not the only reason. Under the intense public pressure of cameras-in-your-face debate, with participants who don't and couldn't have all the facts under control, however much they have been coached, it is all-too-easy to say or do something ridiculous or spit out some remark that could be misunderstood by folks abroad, to everyone's detriment. Both the president and challenger have said and done some dumb things in the past, as most of us have, and we don't need this prime-time show-time format to give them the opportunity to do it again with the whole world watching. I greatly admire Tony Blair's ability to face off his challengers in parliament, whether or not I agree with the policy at issue, or Bill Clinton's, for that matter, but for better or worse it was not until we became mesmerized by television that we began to imagine that capable leaders have to be quick on their feet, forceful and yet likeable on camera, as the debate format requires. These are not the main qualities we should be demanding from our leaders: popping off memorized lines with a smile on your face. While being good on camera can help in the public relations or propaganda side of the presidency, the person who can memorize best and smile most convincingly is not necessarily the one to make the tough, thought-out decisions the president faces. Indeed, the glib one may be the least able to deal seriously with serious issues. MSNBC 's list of dos and don'ts for the candidates in the debate (http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/6080746/) flashed on my screen as I sat down to write this note, and there must be dozens of others giving similar advice. In a way a list like this says it all, for what we are dealing with is at best parallel news conferences, as the commentator says, or more accurately just plain show biz. We would be better off to cancel the debates altogether and approach the profound and complex problems of the presidency in a manner that more nearly reflects their profundity and complexity. There are venues that can be serious for people who don't have an attention deficit problem, but of course most Americans would not "tune in" to them. Alas, TV debates for presidential candidates are probably the ultimate example of how in too many ways we have become a sound-bite culture. Since of course the debates will go ahead, all we can pray for (but what's the point) is that people won't take them for any more then the show-biz that they are.
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September 26, 2004