DEBATE? VIEWERS and voters Tuesday night heard more from sponsors Ford, Wang and the Travellers Corporation than they did from any of the 12 Democratic and Republican presidential candidates playing musical chairs on a crowded Kennedy Center stage. Literally. I have the figures, as Paul Simon said, explaining how he could give every American a job and balance the budget at the same time.
NBC plugged the show as the first-ever confrontation on the same stage between candidates of the two major parties, whetting appetites over the prospect that the candidates would be questioning each other. Did this mean there would be a Tuesday Night Main Event of Robertson vs. Jackson, with Dukakis vs. DuPont, Simon vs. Dole and Gephardt vs. Bush on the undercard?
No, though the network wanted us to think so. Instead, the Democrats and Republicans twice took the stage separately for half-hour discussions on foreign and domestic policy. It must have been in the fine print of its full-page newspaper ads where the network fessed up to the fact that questions and answers would flow only among candidates of the same party.
This led to penetrating give-and-take between Dukakis and Simon on whether Republicans will come around to supporting the Arias peace plan--"I think so," Simon said. "It makes so much sense."--Gephardt and the Duke on how we can prevent the NSC from running amok in the future--"Well, it begins with the fellow in the Oval Office," the Massachusetts governor said. "I've been a chief executive for nine years and..."--and DuPont and Haig on what to do when the Soviets cheat on treaties--"That's a good question, Pete, and let me add a few more Soviet treaty violations you forgot to mention." Ho-hum. Can I buy an idea for $500, Pat?
Still, the question has to be asked: who was The Big Winner? It certainly wasn't the Duke, with his lemon-sucking face and even sourer responses. He's crazy if he thinks he'll sweep into office with the shrill yelp that aid to the contras is "A VIOLATION OF INTERNATIONAL LAW!!!" Turns out it's forbidden by something called the Rio Treaty--one treaty, at least, which the Soviets don't seem to have violated.
UPSTARTS SIMON and DuPont didn't fare much better. Simon looked and sounded sickly and got skewered all night for his promise-them-everything-including-a-balanced-budge t program. Reaganomics with a bow-tie, Gephardt said. And DuPont, fresh from an endorsement by the wacky but influential Manchester Union-Leader, is the only guy more annoying to listen to than Bruce Babbitt. When he speaks, the preppified former Delaware governor and Napalm-heir sounds like a Kennedy gargling mouthwash.
No, the big winner was NBC's galloping "news correspondent" Tom Brokaw, fresh from his exclusive prime-time pow-wow with Gorby in Moscow. He still has trouble pronouncing words that begin with the letter "L", but he was in charge throughout with the help of the same bell that rings when letters are turned on Wheel of Fortune. Candidates knew their minute was up when a soft electronic bell was cued, much like Johnny Carson knows he has to break to a commercial when the pianist breaks into arpeggios.
The former "Today Show" host confidently and frequently cut off the 12 men likely to be the next leader of the free world. Contrast that with his obsequious behavior on t.v. the night before with Mikhail Gorbachev--a telegenic and articulate Mayor Daleytype--and you get an idea who's a bigger ratings draw and why Judge Robert Bork has some misgiving about the First Amendment. "I see," Brokaw would say, nodding with an impressed smile to Gorbachev answers like "We have eliminated the exploitation of man by man. We have no unemployed!" to such questions as "Why are there no human rights in the Soviet Union?"
BACK TO the debate, the two candidates who came off the best were Gore and Haig. Though sweating a lot from the t.v. lights, Gore was the most serious and forthright Democrat. He was the only one who didn't patronize Rainbow Coalition Founder Jesse Jackson, pestering the reverend for his muddled views on the re-flagging of Kuwaiti oil-tankers. Haig was far less screechy than the other right-wingers on the panel who lambasted the I.N.F. treaty and didn't come off as smug as did the more moderate Dole and Bush. But he's already been Secretary of State and has nowhere to go.
Though Christian Broadcasting Network Founder and multimillionaire Marion Robertson tried to keep his mouth shut, he still couldn't keep his foot out of it. He's a Republican, he said, because in the U.S. the G.O.P. alone stands for freedom. He thinks it high time America set out to decolonize the Soviet Union. And he'd sooner "believe in the Great Pumpkin and the Tooth Fairy" before he'd believe the Sandinistas would give up a smidgeon of power voluntarily.
Ha-ha, that Pat, making fun of superstitions and the like to make a point. I'd sooner believe Robertson could speak in tongues, heal the sick and alter the course of hurricanes before he could be elected president of the United States.
More generally, though, it was hard to leave last night's debate impressed with the Democratic field. According to the latest polls, Dukakis and Simon are pulling ahead of the pack in Iowa and the Duke has an overwhelming lead in New Hampshire. The same polls also show Sen. Dole with higher favorable ratings among Democrats than any of the Dems already in the hunt.
That's not good. But there's still one hope left. Though his Hamlet act is beginning to wear thin, in January Mario Cuomo is scheduled to be the sole questioner at a debate among Republican hopefuls in Iowa. Very interesting. That's one questioner who just may be the answer the Democrats are looking for.