WASHINGTON -- With President Bush's appearance of more than an hour on the CBS News "This Morning" program, the television talk-show mania has just about run full circle. And it's hard to argue against any process that brings candidates in direct contact with, and subject to direct scrutiny by, average voters.
Ross Perot has been credited with starting the fad with his invitation to the voters to draft him on the "Larry King Live" show in February. The fact is that presidential candidates in earlier years have made such television appearances, going back at least to Hubert Humphrey in 1968, although certainly not at the length or in the numbers that have occurred in this political season.
It should come as no surprise that the candidates have turned to such direct lines of voter communication. It is a campaign's purpose to get the candidates' views to the voters in the best possible light, and these talk shows most times are an unfiltered vehicle to do so.
Rare is the candidate who prefers being grilled by an experienced, well-informed reporter on a particular issue to dealing with it directly with a voter, for an obvious reason. Such a reporter before asking his question will have known what the candidate has said about the issue and will attempt to clarify any fuzzy or contradictory position. The voter, more times than not, will ask a very general question that the candidate has answered many times before, and hence has a ready answer to serve up.
This is not always the case, and thoughtful and informed voters sometimes come up with a penetrating question or one that in its clarity and simplicity obliges the candidate to make a candid reply. But because the former is the norm, candidates look upon most voter participation shows as batting practice.
The president's CBS appearance underscored this fact, and Bush himself acknowledged as much. He told one voter on the White House lawn who asked him about re-establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba that the question was "what I call a softball," and proceeded to say that Fidel Castro was "swimming against the tide . . . of freedom and democracy" and "he will fall of his own weight."
Other softballs pitched underhand to Bush included one from a Georgia woman who asked him "to reassure me that there will be Social Security benefits for me and for my children . . ." He reassured her. A Washington, D.C., man asked him "what your thoughts are on the domestic economy in the short run and in the long term." Bush told him that in the short run the economy is "in a recovery phase" and in the long term he was trying "to make the growth more robust, more vigorous . . ." And a man from Asheville, N.C., asked him to visit him for lunch with his two young boys and tell them "what you've done for them." Bush said he didn't know "when I can take you up on the luncheon" but said he'd tell them "they got a great future, an optimistic future."
The hosts of the show, Harry Smith and Paula Zahn, by contrast threw the president a barrage of fastballs: Why he had dropped like a rock in the polls; what he thought about Ross Perot; how he could work with a Democratic Congress in a second term when he had such trouble with it in his first; why he waited so long to respond to the humanitarian crisis in Bosnia; why he failed to come close to his 1988 campaign pledge to create 30 million new jobs; why he kept insisting for so long that there was no recession; why he continued to support Saddam Hussein while knowing "he was skimming U.S. support to help develop his nuclear arms."
Bush, after complaining that he didn't know the latter, turned to voters sitting on the lawn and asked: "Why is that it's the correspondents that have the controversy about Iraq or the polls or what I want to say about Ross Perot when the American people want to know what I'm doing about the problems?"
The answer is that they had done their homework and were not giving the president an entirely free ride in his crack at more than an hour of free television time. The whole episode was instructive about why candidates today are so willing and eager to participate in voter Q-and-A sessions and why they are likely to become a campaign staple from now on.