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Presidential Debates: Their Power, Problems, and Promise.

Presidential Debates: Their Power, Problems, and Promise. Kathleen Hall Jamieson, David S. Birdsell. Oxford University Press, $19.95. Presidential campaign debates are like White House press conferences-they're not much, but they're all we've got. We learn more from what the candidates say inadvertently in debates than from what they say intentionally. But what do we learn? That's hard to tell. I was a panelist in the first Reagan-Mondale debate in 1984, and I asked both candidates about taxes and the role of religion in public life. Their answers were lifeless snippets from their campaign speeches or full -blown efforts at saying nothing and thus avoiding a gaffe. The only moment of spontaneity came when Reagan was asked why, as a professed Christian, he never goes to church. Reagan said any church he attended might be blown up (presumably by terrorists), and he didn't want to inconvenience the parishioners. An interesting answer, but what did it reveal about Reagan's character or his ability to govern effectively? Four years later, I still haven't figured that out.

In this brief (256 pages) book, Jamieson and Birdsell give a nice rundown of how presidential debates evolved and how they should be changed: the press panel should be scrapped in favor of a conversational format with a single moderator; debates should be limited to narrow topics; visual aids such as maps should be utilized. I agree on all counts. Candidates who get by on superficial knowledge of many issues but mastery of none might be exposed. If not, they'd at least have to respond to their opponent's zingers.

But let's not get our hopes up. The real problem with presidential debates is the public and the press. Most folks scarcely follow campaigns and thus have only the most shallow grasp of the issues. They watch debates and usually end up thinking better of both candidates. Then the press steps in and declares a winner based on who generated the best "sound bytes" for TV news shows. Within three days, the public knuckles under and accepts the press verdict, This happened in 1976 when the press wildly exaggerated the significance of Ford's blooper about Poland and in 1984 when reporters gave Reagan too much credit for a canned joke about Mondale's "youth and inexperience." Changing the debate format won't alter this sad performance.

-Fred Barnes
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Author:Barnes, Fred
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 1988
Words:389
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