Debates Are More than a Show


Adm. James Stockdale displayed such ineptness as a politician in Tuesday night's vice presidential debate that most analysts now dismiss his and Ross Perot's campaign as not to be taken seriously. An instant NBC poll dealing with the vice presidential debate showed only 2 percent of respondents thought Admiral Stockdale "won." And an ABC poll showed no change in Mr. Perot's public support after the debate -- still stuck at only 12 percent.

The independent candidate for vice president was clearly like an admiral out of water -- not in his element. As Perot campaign executive Orson Swindle said, "I just don't think he was very articulate. Probably did the best he could against two extraordinarily articulate speakers."

Vice President Dan Quayle and Sen. Al Gore were articulate Tuesday, surprisingly so in the former's case, though occasionally they came across as just well-prepped and in some cases artificial. For example, the vice president implied that he had read the senator's book on the environment, but gave a good impression of a man who had read one page only (he kept citing but not quoting the same page). We imagine many viewers did not believe the vice president had read the book.

Admiral Stockdale said he had read the book. We imagine everyone believed him. He is that kind of man. He also said he had re-read the Lincoln-Douglas debates. That sounded believable, too. We cannot imagine either of the other two candidates making a statement like that without provoking skepticism. Perhaps there is something wrong with contemporary politics.

The vice presidential debate was more interesting and more informative than the Sunday night presidential debate. The format explains that. A single moderator willing to let the candidates mix it up without too close adherence to elaborate rules of engagement lets the public get a better idea of what the candidates know and what they believe and especially what their priorities are. Tonight's presidential debate will have a single moderator using questions from an audience. If the moderator will turn the debate over to the candidates to the maximum possible, the audience in the hall and watching on television can expect a much better show.

The public wants more than a show, of course. Ninety minutes of just bickering is too much for most people. Admiral Stockdale's limit was 80 minutes -- it was 8:20 when he turned off his hearing aid. Messrs. Bush, Clinton and Perot, when they go at it tonight, should bear in mind that what the public wants to hear is what next for the United States in the economy and on the world stage. Enough already of Iran-contra and war protests. The candidates should remember that even voters who don't wear hearing aids have remote control and/or OFF buttons on their television sets.

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