Wednesday, October 22, 2008


Time magazine, rarely a publication with conservative sympathies, declared John McCain the winner of the final presidential debate. The immediate impact of the debate itself did not register the same with other pundits. McCain has a tremendous amount of work to do in the last few weeks to win the election.

I have a problem with the focus so intensely placed upon presidential debates. News outlets and major networks play them up to gain ratings. The billing for them resembles that of a boxing match, especially in CNN's marketing. How much do they really matter?

To me they border on almost the meaningless. A president's strongest attribute ought to be what he decides on important questions and issues after thought and consideration. The debate format reduces significant positions of policy into easily digestible chunks with an emphasis on how such information is delivered. A witty remark trumps five minutes of thoughtful response. Brutus can never compete with Mark Antony.

Picking who you want to be president based upon debate performance is like selecting an NBA first round draft pick based upon how well the player competes in H-O-R-S-E. It reflects one small part of what ought be be consideration of the entire candidate. What has he done? What does he believe? What will he do as president?

History remembers very few debates. Ronald Reagan, one of the greatest communicators to ever sit in the Oval Office, got trounced in a debate with the forgettable Walter Mondale. John F. Kennedy's debate performance (rather than his flagrant and outright lies about the "missile gap" in an election that hinged on the national security debate) is credited in his victory that he won by the skin of his teeth over Nixon.

Some great men would never have consented to debate. Washington (like Adams and most 19th century candidates) considered personal campaigning beneath him, much less a debate. Lincoln famously debated in a Senate campaign with Stephen Douglas, but never met his opponents in 1860 or 64. Lincoln was a master at this art, mixing a great legal mind with the fine art of storytelling.

The election of 2008 has thus far favored the great speaker with nothing to say over the solid man of experience. Speaking and debating reveals nothing of the true substance of a candidate. In stormy times, one should cling to a rock instead of a forsythia bush.

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