Is it too much to ask to have an honest political debate?
I'm not referring to any particular candidate having lied; I'm more referring to the entire spectacle. All the candidates are coached to a faretheewell, told by their strategists and tacticians what to say, when to smile, when to get angry, and where to look. As a result, what we see has little to do with the reality of any of the candidates' personalities or approaches to leadership, and more to do with what their handlers think would be expedient apropos of getting elected.
Really, did we -- or more to the point, could we -- learn anything about the Republican candidates from last night's GOP debate in Arizona? Santorum and Romney both spent most of their time jockeying for the position of Least Liberal Man On Stage; Gingrich seemed mostly to smile paternally, and when asked for a one-word description of himself, said, "Cheerful," as if that were a qualification for public office; and Paul continued to sound his "small government" mantra. We didn't learn a single new thing about any of them, and given the way debates are run (and analyzed afterwards), I doubt we could have.
I think the last time that I saw any real authenticity in a debate was during the Bentsen/Quayle vice presidential debate, when Quayle compared himself to JFK and Bentsen shot back with the now-famous quip, "Senator, I knew Jack Kennedy. And senator, you are no Jack Kennedy." Pow! Zing! Can you think of any moment in a more recent debate when a candidate has actually responded, in an unscripted and honest fashion, to anything?
Oh, for the times when there was a real exchange, when you could actually learn something about a politician's personality, views, articulateness, and quickness of mind from watching him or her speak. It's not that it was always (or even often) polite; more than once, such debates drew blood (figuratively, if not literally). Possibly the most brilliant retort ever recorded was the exchange on the floor of the British Parliament between the Earl of Sandwich and the redoubtable John Wilkes. Sandwich was so infuriated by something Wilkes had said that he blurted out, "Wilkes, I predict that you will either die on the gallows or else of some loathsome disease!" Wilkes coolly responded, "Which it will be, my dear sir, will depend entirely on whether I embrace your principles or your mistress."
Can you honestly imagine anything of the kind occurring in one of today's "debates?"
Winston Churchill has a well-deserved reputation for thinking on his feet, and few could best him in an intellectual argument. There's the famous exchange between him and Lady Astor ("Sir Winston, if you were my husband, I'd poison your coffee!" "Lady Astor, if you were my wife, I'd drink it.") But there were others. Churchill was doing a public speech, in front of hundreds, and a man came up to one of Churchill's aides and handed him a sealed envelope. Thinking it was a crucial message, the aide went up to Churchill (still on the stage) and handed him the envelope. Churchill paused in his speech, and opened the letter, only to find a sheet of paper with the word "IDIOT" scrawled on it in huge, black letters.
Totally unflustered, Churchill showed the paper to the audience and said, "I've often received letters where the sender forgot to sign his name, but this is the first time I've received one where the sender signed his name but forgot to write the letter."
It's not just in public speaking events that politicians used to feel freer to express their views; knowing that every time a public figure speaks, his or her words could be recorded, excerpted, and broadcast on the internet, leaders today have to be constantly on their guard. It didn't used to be that way. Even the taciturn Calvin Coolidge knew how to use his tongue, when he chose to. After watching a particularly dreadful opera performance, President Coolidge was cornered by a reporter while leaving the theater. "What do you think of the singer's execution?" the reporter asked.
Coolidge responded, "I'm all for it."
It's not that people like Wilkes, Churchill, and Coolidge didn't prepare, didn't write scripts, didn't have advisers. It's just that in those days, before the terms "spin" and "sound bite" had been coined, speakers were not hesitant about letting their personalities (rough edges and all) show. Even Ronald Reagan, much as I hate to admit it, was more authentic than any of today's candidates are; although I usually disagreed with what he said, I had no doubt that what we were seeing was the real Reagan.
Today, I wonder. And I also wonder how far today's Wilkeses and Churchills could get in the political arena without being tamed, muzzled, or simply swept aside by the media and the party machinery.
It's also why I tend to pay attention to the candidates' pasts. What they said when they were less watched, less guarded, is often more telling than what they're saying now, where an unfortunate word choice can lead to a drop in the all-important polls. It's why, for example, I think it's critical that we think carefully about declarations like the ones Santorum made in his 2008 "America is under attack by Satan" speech. When the media resuscitated this speech, made at Ave Maria University, Santorum at first defended himself by saying that he simply "believes in good and evil," but finally added with some annoyance that the comments he'd made were from an "old speech" and so were "not relevant." On the contrary; they're extremely relevant, mostly because there's no way in hell he'd admit to any such thing in what currently passes for presidential debate. Old stump speeches, made to people whose views the candidate shares, are the best way to get a window into what the candidate's views actually are. It may, unfortunately, be the only way.
Evidently, glib but unimaginative scripted responses, rather than speaking from the heart, are now the currency of debate. How sad for American politics; how sad for us all that we cannot be allowed to see who we are actually voting for.