NEW YORK -- When you think of the Phil Donahue show, you tend to think of discussions about the civil rights of left-handed, red-haired bisexuals.
As it turned out, however, it was the election eve Donahue program that offered the single best view of Bill Clinton and Jerry Brown available at any point in the New York primary campaign. While Donaue himself sat by in total silence, the two Democratic candidates spent 43 minutes talking about their political history and philosophy and, most to the point, why they want to be president. It was informative enough to argue strongly against the use of interfering moderators and panels of reporters in future debates.
The debate did not provide detailed pictures of the differences between the two candidates on any single issue except perhaps health care. Brown would support a tax-based, single-payer system similar to that in Canada; Clinton favors retaining a role for private insurance companies more like the system in place in Germany. Each showed he could talk with assurance and coherence about the financing problems.
But neither did it dissolve into the usual shouting match of accusations and denials. Clinton didn't even bother to attack Brown on his plan for a 13 percent flat tax, and Brown didn't bother to repeat his 800 number and rail about official corruption.
But both candidates offered something the primaries are supposed to produce -- a picture of their views on the role of the federal government in American life and a distillation of the case they would make against President Bush in the general election campaign next fall. The one thing that was clearest is that these Democrats are both committed to a far more activist role for government than the nation has experienced in 11 years of Ronald Reagan and George Bush.
The format allowed both Democrats to show off their differences in emphasis. Brown was able to make his case for empowerment of the people without his usual strident shouting. Clinton was able to deliver his message that he would be the champion of the middle class in the forceful way that had made him the front-runner among the Democrats in those days before Gennifer Flowers.
You could make a case for either as the "winner," if choosing a winner is necessary. Brown clearly gained by presenting more detail than most voters know about his background as a two-term governor of California -- and by doing so in a way that seemed designed to counter the impression of him as a loose cannon. Clinton was able to remind viewers and voters that he, too, is a candidate of impressive experience who offers significant change, not simply the latest emissary of the political establishment.
That is what has been missing from the Democratic presidential campaign since the debates in New Hampshire that now seem so distant. Clinton's message of change in both the Democratic Party and nation has been lost in the hue and cry caused largely by his own political blunders -- playing golf at an all-white club, dissembling on marijuana and again on his draft history, Hillary Clinton's incautious statements about baking cookies and George Bush's marital fidelity. Brown's rise has been fueled largely by voter discontent and Clinton's inability to get off the defensive long enough to tap into it.
There was, of course, some predictable political game-playing on both sides. With his eye on New York ethnics, Brown put more emphasis than in the past on his history as part of "an Irish political family." Clinton played the role of avuncular leader of the discussion, raising one broad question after another with his good friend Jerry. They competed in bashing the Bush record.
But the end product was more engrossing political television than has been available at any other point in this noisy New York campaign.
Impressions of the candidates formed in three weeks of shouting matches about who's the sleaziest one of all could not be dispelled in a single hour. And there has been legitimacy in some of the questions forced by the tabloids about Clinton's dissembling and Brown's extravagant claims.
But the message was that there is a better way to run a political debate. Moderators, timekeepers and reporters are superfluous.