Politicians, Press and Populace


Questions from a cross-section of uncommitted voters at the second presidential debate were so searching, so troubled and so insistent on the issues that they fortified our belief that this has been a highly informative campaign. Of course there has been plenty of mud-slinging and negative spin. But from an avalanche of public dialogue on a scale never seen before, American voters have learned a lot about the nation's problems and policy options.

All forms of communication -- television, radio, newspapers, magazines, news letters -- have contributed to the process. Reflecting and stimulating a popular demand for facts, insight, drama and direct confrontation, the press and the politicians interacted more and exploited one another less than in many previous elections.

Voters who wanted facts could get them in abundance as candidates scrambled to talk shows, staged electronic town halls and submitted to unprecedented scrutiny on the printed page. Issues were thrashed out at length in serious publications and on serious TV programs. On the alert after the Willie Horton experience of 1988, reporters wrote stories about paid TV ads, describing their content and motivation in detail.

The result of sending the nation to school for a course in Politics 101 was very much on view Thursday night in Richmond when George Bush, Bill Clinton and Ross Perot took part in an Oprah-like audience format that would have been unthinkable not so long ago. Mr. Bush was subdued and fumbling, Mr. Clinton cranked up and confident and Mr. Perot a bit tedious and repetitious. In competitive terms, little changed. But in connecting with the concerns of ordinary citizens, the encounter displayed citizens who were well aware of current problems.

Bill Clinton's half-hearted attack on the deficit, George Bush's trashing of his opponent's character, Ross Perot's lack of remedies once he is led off the subject of the national debt -- all these matters and more were illuminated in a discussion that was both serious and unspectacular. We suspect it was a vehicle for thinking citizens to connect with one another.

No format is ideal in the relatively new art of presidential debate. This year's experiment in a variety of approaches will hardly demonstrate that talk shows are better than newspaper panels or free-wheeling head-to-head clashes are more instructive than carefully structured and disciplined exchanges. Instead, the 1992 experiment shows the value of variety for variety's sake in drawing out the candidates.

The explosion of new techniques in communication offers great new opportunities to produce the informed electorate that Thomas Jefferson rightly saw as the bedrock of democracy.

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