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Viewpoints: 'Debates' are more like reality TV

By Edward Cuddihy
Special to The News

As an aficionado of local and national politics for the better part of the past 60 years, this retired newsman is dismayed (that’s the kindest word available to describe the situation) at the current state of American presidential politics.

Mind you, it is not the caliber or character of the women and men seeking to lead the free world today that’s disturbing. Today’s candidates are as excellent and bright, or as middling and flawed, as the candidates of the past 232 years. Most are fine human beings. Just a few are not.

It is how we have come to choose them that is so disheartening.

Just think of it: Our patriotic obligation to select the person who will sit in the most powerful office in the free world, someone who will lead a great and unselfish people, someone to carry the beacon of freedom for the world’s oppressed, that obligation, has been turned into a prime-time TV sitcom. And a poor one at that.

We call them “presidential debates.” Trumpets sound and drums roll as the networks promote their upcoming shows. There are red and blue flashing lights, bunting and plenty of flags. Beforehand, political analysts talk incessantly about what the candidates might say. And when the show is over, those same analysts parse ad nauseam the few things that actually were said, important or not. Usually not.

Any high school student will tell you these aren’t debates. They are the network news department equivalent of “American Idol,” “Dancing with the Stars” and “Survivor,” all rolled into one, a TV show based on an upcoming election. If only the networks could get away with using soap opera actors to play the parts of public officials their ratings would skyrocket.

A high school sophomore will tell you a debate is when representatives of opposing sides of a substantive question define the issue, state their cases in detail, listen attentively and respectfully to the opposition, cross-examine the opponent’s arguments, and then sum up their positions. No good. That would make for dull TV.

It’s more important on a crowded stage for each contestant to lie in wait for a chance to deliver that rehearsed pithy remark, pop that embarrassing question, even say something ridiculous like smart people don’t pay taxes. Anything that might distinguish himself or herself from the crowd and give the pundits a reason to repeat their name over the next week.

Of course, the media loves – lives on – conflict. So insignificant differences are magnified and personal slights are given the weight of second-degree manslaughter.

And what about the debate moderator? That’s the unseen and unheard timekeeper who assures the rules are followed. Not on this show! The moderators of this show crave their share of the spotlight. And why not? Their careers might depend on it.

Political debates are not new. The 1960 debates between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon generally are considered to have ushered in the age of the TV presidential debate show. Few can recall anything the candidates said, but some still insist the election turned on the amount of sweat rolling down Nixon’s forehead.

Of course, long before TV – in the summer and fall of 1858 – Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas held a famous series of debates at seven town squares in Illinois. Many think the Lincoln-Douglas debates were presidential debates, but in fact the candidates were running for the U.S. Senate.

The newspapers generally gave Lincoln the edge in the debates. But he lost the Senate race to Douglas and then went on to win the presidency two years later.

One can only wonder what George Washington or John Adams would have thought of our presidential elections morphing into TV reality shows. Or what would Edward R. Murrow or Walter Cronkite have thought? But Murrow and Cronkite were TV aberrations. TV from its earliest days was primarily an entertainment medium, suited better for Howdy Doody and Milton Berle than the serious, if often boring, business of governing.

The U.S. presidency has come a long way since 1788. Washington wouldn’t recognize the job. And so has the way we choose our president: From a late 18th century exercise in restraint and honor to the 21st century made-for-TV extravaganza.

We each can judge for ourself whether today’s results are better or worse. But as the most influential television journalist of the 20th century said each night upon signing off: “And that’s the way it is ... ”

Edward Cuddihy is a retired Buffalo News managing editor.

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