The following column appeared in today's local Daily Hampshire Gazette under the title, "Candidates Betray the Public's Trust."
“The trouble with higher education in the U.S.,” Susan said in her crisp British accent, “is that you don’t teach debating.” Both of us were a couple of drinks into a relaxed supper in a New York restaurant a lot of years ago. We were colleagues at the same book publishing house.
“For example,” she continued with a glimmering eye that let me know she was preparing to deliver an intellectual uppercut, “I could sit here, right now, and prove to you that a chocolate milk shake was vanilla. And you’d believe it.”
With her academic background at Oxford and Cambridge, I had no doubt that Susan could make good on her promise. But I had entered the restaurant with an eye toward a good meal in good company. I didn’t feel like being pummeled into grape jelly before the main course arrived.
“Please don’t do that,” I begged only half in jest. “If it makes you feel any better, I will concede that a chocolate milk shake is vanilla.” Susan accepted my surrender and the rest of the meal went off without mind-knotting fisticuffs. We ate, we drank, we talked shop and gossiped. We were friends – people whose abilities and leanings might differ, but people who found sustenance at the same table.
That long-ago dinner with Susan resurfaced in my mind recently as the last of three presidential debates — Wednesday night in Las Vegas — approached. Why did the crop of debates up until now feel so flimsy? I looked up the word “debate” on the internet and found that a debate was “a formal discussion on a particular topic in a public meeting or legislative assembly, in which opposing arguments are put forward.”
Using that yardstick, a debate was not about the relationship between the size of anyone’s hands and their genitalia. Debates were not snark festivals or a means of sidestepping questions.
In the long ago and faraway, debates were the ability to marshal hard evidence to support a point of view about an agreed-upon topic. Present-day examples might include those pesky, flag-draped boxes delivered to Dover, Delaware, the value of a college education when balanced against $1.3 trillion in student debt, income inequality, the role of outsourced American jobs, a ravaged coal industry, banking legerdemain, highway infrastructure, climate change or racism. You know, the servings at the table around which all Americans are sitting in friendship if not agreement.
In 1920, six months before Congress ratified the 19th amendment to the Constitution and women were at last granted the right to vote, the nonpartisan League of Women Voters was officially formed. Part of its mission was to encourage women — who had heretofore been widely regarded as their husbands’ chattel — to exercise their new rights. Between 1976 and 1984, the League sponsored a number of presidential debates. The League’s format for those debates focused on the interests of an electorate and the information required for an informed vote.
Then, in 1988, the League abruptly cited fraud on the part of the political parties and withdrew its debate sponsorship. What had happened? What had happened was that the two political parties came together behind closed doors and reshaped the ground rules of the debates in such a way that the candidates would no longer be subjected to a spontaneity of questioning from the audience. Who might be invited (and thereby excluded), what questions might be asked, and the potential for follow-up questions were all carefully choreographed by the two major political parties.
The media networks, sensing a potential income stream, piled on in support of the new format. Now, instead of defending the voting public, news outlets saw a herd of cash cows.
In its 1988 press release, the League wrote, “It has become clear to us that the candidates’ organizations aim to add debates to their list of campaign-trail charades devoid of substance, spontaneity and answers to tough questions. The League has no intention of becoming an accessory to the hoodwinking of the American public.”
Newsman Walter Cronkite, once dubbed “the most trusted man in America,” chimed in: “The debates are part of the unconscionable fraud that our political campaigns have become. Here is a means to present to the American people a rational exposition of the major issues that face the nation, and the alternate approaches to their solution. Yet the candidates participate only with the guarantee of a format that defies meaningful discourse.”
In exasperation, journalist Bill Moyers commented, “We can no longer leave the electoral process to the two parties or the media conglomerates with whom they’re in cahoots. The stakes are too high.”
If I had to pick a single word to characterize the current attempts to purchase the presidency of the United States, that word might be “betrayal.” From Bernie Sanders to Donald Trump to Hillary Clinton to spit-slick media – betrayal. Democrats and Republicans and their debate-moderating handlers have illuminated just one small corner of that betrayal with their manipulation of a debate format.
What then is an informed electorate to do? Whining doesn’t accomplish much and bloviating doesn’t accomplish much more. Maybe the best anyone can do is to keep their wits about them and trust a little: A chocolate milk shake is not vanilla.