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The incorporated debates.

In common with every other phase of this election, the presidential debates have been determined in advance by intelligent expenditure of covert money. The Commission on Presidential Debates ("commission" sounds good and respectable, does it not?) is actually a sponsorship project, "brought to you" by a dozen or so major brand names. If I mention Ford, General Motors, AT&T, I.B.M., Prudential, Hallmark, Dow Corning (patch), Kellogg's, Philip Morris and Upjohn, you may wonder at what meeting they secured the right to pay for the great gladiatorial contest between Clinton and Dole (a contest in which, as a Nation letter writer put it so perfectly last week, if you buy one you get one free). Lots of luck, incidentally, if you decide to try and find out. You thought the whole thing was sponsored by the League of Women Voters, didn't you? Well, I mention the corporations above because, in addition to subsidizing the debates, they also bankrolled the USA*NAFTA coalition four years ago. And it can't have escaped your attention that the two candidates excluded by definition from the debates are the same two--Ralph Nader and Ross Perot--who led the opposition to that exquisitely bipartisan treaty.

"Conflict of interest" has become a smooth and well-worn term, used to describe trivial behavior by people like book reviewers and special prosecutors. Really serious interests--class interests, as I sometimes ruefully think of them--are now so concerted and so omnipresent that nothing so vulgar as a conflict can ever arise. This is true even of the microsecond of discussion that took place on the debate issue. The only candidate able to make a noise and seek legal redress for the exclusion, Perot, is on the ballot in the first place only because he himself is a corporation!

In the last "debates," the two largest donors were Philip Morris and Prudential, each of which gave a quarter milt Philip Morris not only helped sponsor debate "receptions" but also hung out a flag with its own name that was visible on TV. Product placement, as we know from our business studies, can be everything. The investment, in short, was not wasted. It is a mistake to complain merely about twoparty collusion, or about DemoRepublican identity. Behind the windows of this glassy, impermeable office building are people who clamp on the donkey's ears, or the elephant's trunk, not even alternately but at the same time. Not a pretty sight. Perot's attorney, Jamin Raskin, associate dean of the American University Law School, filed suit in U.S. district court and asked the judge to subject the Commission on Presidential Debates to constitutional rules on electoral fairness. What was the reply of the C.P.D.? It was to say, in open court, that it was exempt as a private corporation, named C.P.D. Incorporated. You could hardly want it written any plainer than that. Public law doesn't count: This is a banana republic we're talking about, where you can vote in a plebiscite or referendum just as soon as we've got the candidates and the questions safely nailed down.

Earlier I said that Perot and Nader and others were excluded "by definition." The definition is the same one that has come to dominate the whole cycle: a mystic combination of"electability" and "credibility." These are qualities that cannot be simply acquired by, for instance, getting a lot of votes or by being believable. They are titles of honor in the consensus. You can, like Ronald Reagan, be a proven and habitual liar without losing your certificate of "credibility." You can, like Bob Dole, have a long record of calamity at the polls and still remain "electable." The definition is all about itself, like "moderate" or "extreme." It can be modified, with some difficulty, only by the expenditure of large sums of money (cf. Perot and Malcolm Forbes).

Why else do the media biggies stupidly and unvaryingly ask, without any apparent self-consciousness, how large is a potential candidate's "war chest"? It's certainly not because they believe that size doesn't matter. And these semi-conscious assumptions have meant not just that politics itself has become privatized but that politics cannot even be discussed except in a private language. Rightly is it said that our system is one of checks--and balances, too.

Having called Jorge Mas Canosa "Clinton's Miami Mobster" by what it describes as a mistake, The New Republic never exercised the legal option of restating the characterization on purpose. Many people would have welcomed the chance to confront Cuba's caudillo-in-waiting in open court. (I'm in the book, if anyone wants to enter a plea of justification.) As part of the sellout, Martin Peretz agreed to fork over $100,000, which the so-called Cuban American National Foundation will use to set up a New Republic Scholarship. What fresh hells can we expect in this line?

* The Martin Peretz Senior Fellowship in Hydrology and Excavation at the Ariel Sharon School of Advanced Settlership (some restrictions apply)

* The Martin Peretz Chair in Intensive Proctology at the Al Gore Future Presidential Library (contents under pressure)

* The Martin Peretz Visiting Fellowship in Creative Accounting at the Ivan Boesky Fundfor Investment Studies (some assembly required)

* The Martin Peretz Scholarship at the Elliott Abrams Center for Ethics and Public Policy (all applications handled in strict confidence)

* The Martin Peretz Foundation for the Study of Welfare and Dependency (send no money)

* The Martin Peretz Initiative in Border-Crossing at the Contra University of Honduras (regrets only)

* The Martin Peretz Endowment (warning: the Surgeon General has asked us to block that metaphor)

Martin Peretz--Making a Difference Since 1979.
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Title Annotation:Minority Report; 1996 presidential candidates' debates sponsored by the Commission on Presidential Debates
Author:Hitchens, Christopher
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:Column
Date:Oct 21, 1996
Previous Article:A woman's world?
Next Article:The First Wives Club.

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