October 19, 2000
The adversaries are at each other's throats, time is running out, the world is forced to take sides. I'm not talking about Israel and the Palestinians, I'm speaking of Al Gore and George W. Bush.
Against the backdrop of bloodshed in Israel, and the terrorist attack on the Uss Cole, the choice offered in the presidential race takes on even more portent and urgency.
But for all that is happening in the world, the campaign has seemed strangely bloodless. The first two debates redefined the word debate itself. There was no direct interchange, no probing followup questions, just scripted replies to canned queries. The ground rules that each candidate's campaign agreed upon did a great disservice to the taxpayers. What we want are debates, what we get are campaign commercials occasionally interrupted by Jim Lehrer. In the third and final debate last Tuesday, when Gore actually dared challenge Bush directly on affirmative action, Bush refused to answer, citing the rules against direct questioning. And that was that.
The irony of the debates is that they are supposed to demonstrate what the candidates are really like, though the formats themselves have been entirely contrived. The exchanges are usually no more enlightening on the campaign trail, where the candidates are coached to within a preposition on every possible answer. Joseph Lieberman met with dozens of wealthy supporters, many of them Jewish, at the St. Regis Hotel two weeks ago at a hard-money bonanza sponsored by the Democratic National Committee. He swept into the room, spieled for 15 minutes, then, before waltzing out, ended on a suitable Jewish joke. "I feel like it's getting to be like a Rosh Hashanah meal," he said. "It's 3:30 and we're still at lunch."
The back-and-forth was a little sharper later that week when Bush met with Republican Jewish donors and local rabbis at the home of entrepreneur David Saperstein. Local rabbis are not generally known for their widespread support of the Republican candidate. The questions on abortion and the impeachment proceedings were pointed, and Bush, to his credit, replied. At least he wasn't, to say the least, preaching to the converted.
But such events are more and more rare, and they certainly aren't happening on national television. You would think that this late in the campaign the most mysterious number in a CNN poll is the percentage of undecided voters. How can anyone still be undecided after an election cycle that seems to have been going on since the Potsdam Conference?
But the fault may be in the campaigns themselves. Safe and slow, they leave us numb and unengaged. What we wouldn't give for a good verbal tussle, for what Burt Prelutsky called, in these pages last week, a real Jewish dinner table-style debate. You know, sit them down (with Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan) around a nice dining room set, put some brisket, kasha and seltzer in front of them, throw out a topic, and may the best man win.
President Bill Clinton, we're sure, would have excelled in such a test. Then again, Clinton has proved himself uniquely able during the difficult negotiations at Sharm el-Sheikh. We can only hope the next president will have the wherewithal to face the bloody, unscripted messes the world will drop on his lap. But how will we know?