Let's just say Tuesday night's Bloomberg-Washington Post debate was one of those times when TV got in the way of the story instead of bringing it to us.
I am talking about the producers of the debate deciding to have the candidates sit around a big table instead of standing at lecturns to debate. The TV table onstage at Dartmouth College was intended to be an enlarged version of the table debate moderator Charlie Rose has become known for employing on his talk show.
Memo to the folks responsible for making this decision: You don't shape presidential debates to the talents of your moderator. He's not supposed to be the focus, the candidates and the American voters are.
For the record, the format was explained in a Bloomberg press release this way: The candidates will outline their economic and job creation proposals in a unique format: seated side-by-side at a round table facing the hosts and surrounded by audience members. This format will facilitate serious and substantive debate on issues of vital importance to the country.
With the debate limited to discussing only the economy for two hours, of course, viewers got a more in-depth discussion of that topic than in previous debates. And the mainly dignified setting of Dartmouth did take some of the reality-contestant edge apparent at other cable debates off Tuesday night's proceedings. The only heckler of the night was kept far enough off microphone so that his words were unintelligible -- at least to me.
But the table did not foster intimacy as one Bloomberg analyst self-servingly claimed Tuesday night. And why in the world would anyone think being seated at a table is going to better "facilitate serious and substantive debate" than standing at podiums as debaters have for centuries? The claim is nothing but empty TV-talk.
And the phoniness was evident from the very opening moments when Rose told viewers: Tonight, it is the site of an important Republican presidential debate ... And because we're at a table — this is the kind of table I like — the kind of kitchen table where families for generations have come...
The oversized table situated under a forest of white-hot TV lights and surrounded by giant big screens had as much to do with the intimacy of a family's kitchen table as standing on the mound at Yankee Stadium in the seventh game of a World Series has with standing in your bathrobe at 6 a.m. looking at yourself in the bathroom mirror.
The kitchen table image is a phony conceit, and a burned-out one to boot that campaign-addled politicians have turned to sawdust with their empty invocations. The fact that Rose chose it for his opening remarks tells you something about his lack of, shall be say, clarity, force, focus and, perhaps, preparation Tuesday night.
In the end, the table and Rose were distractions that mainly got in the way of bringing voters information and illumination.
Rose might be as good an interviewer as his niche of devotees insists, but for the first 45 minutes or so, he sabotaged the debate by constantly returning to Mitt Romney with questions and follow-up questions -- as an interviewer would. What I'm saying here is that Rose couldn't or wouldn't stop thinking and performing as a one-on-one interviewer long enough to be a successful moderator of a debate with eight candidates.
Rose even broke format and asked follow-ups to questions that were asked of Romney by his fellow moderators Karen Tumulty and Julianna Goldman, of the Washington Post and Bloomberg, respectively. (They are all listed as moderators, but if you didn't see how clearly Tumulty and Goldman were depicted as humble deacons to Rose's high priest, you were in a coma.)
Rose's worst moment was during the round of candidates asking each other questions. They were supposed to go in alphabetical order, but he called on Rick Santorum ahead of Romney. Santorum had to correct the star moderator.
I am left wondering if Rose made the mistake because he was so foggy in general, or because he was so focused on Romney answering questions as would be the case in a one-on-one interview.
I guess, in the end, it doesn't matter. Either way, Rose failed to deliver the goods as moderator.
Did I mention how awful I thought the taped segments played on the big screen were? Did any planning or thought go into the selection. One of the segments featuring Ronald Reagan was presented with absolutely no context. It was a meaningless soundbite, which Romney deftly pointed out when asked to respond to it.
I'll take a pass on the performances of Tumulty and Goldman. I probably made enough enemies for one night.
Let me just say, I hope the next time Bloomberg presents a debate, it will think less of self-promotion and more of the voters and candidates. Tuesday night's debate was neither engaging nor particularly enlightening with its attempt at fake TV intimacy.
I'm sorry, I don't feel like I spent two hours at the kitchen table with Charlie and the eight candidates and we have all come to know each other better.
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