The Big Payback

With this presidential debate, the highlights didn't come from Bush or Gore

So it wasn't Seattle; so nobody trashed a Starbucks to show their opposition to the WTO. Say "WTO" in this town, and most folks think you're talking about pro wrestling. It wasn't even Boston, where thousands of protesters showed up at the first presidential debate and some hurled stones at police, others briefly blocked buses from the exits of the debate and 16 were arrested. The situation wasn't quite that hectic around Washington University on Oct. 17, though hundreds shouted profane chants at the riot-ready police, and after the debate, at Skinker and Waterman, several unfortunate souls were pepper-sprayed by the city's mobile reserve and five protesters were arrested. Not exactly Bloody Sunday.

But the River City may have one distinction -- it may be the burial ground for the Commission on Presidential Debates. This may be the last time such a dull, desultory presidential debate takes place. Let's hope so, because if the commission is buried here, many would be happy to piss on its grave.

During a sparsely attended press conference at City Hall in University City, Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader suggested that it may not be his federal lawsuit against the debate commission that does the trick: The audience is dwindling. "Networks can't let the debate commission wither their audience without an economic consequence to the networks themselves," says Ralph. The numbers don't lie. The St. Louis debate drew 37.7 million viewers, up slightly from the second debate's audience of 37.6 million but down from the first debate, which drew 46.6 million. Back in the day, from 1980-92, presidential debates drew 62 million-80 million viewers.

Outside Wash. U. on Oct. 17: It wasn't exactly Bloody Sunday.
Jennifer Silverberg
Outside Wash. U. on Oct. 17: It wasn't exactly Bloody Sunday.

But 36 million is still a crowd in most parts, so the inner scene at Wash. U. had media trappings reminiscent of the Super Bowl. The debate substituted for the game, the political reporters for the sportswriters. The media sat in a large room of the fieldhouse, away from the debate, watching monitors and being fed quotes and position papers in much the same way sportswriters receive stats and updates as the game progresses. The main difference was, when the Super Bowl was over, there were highlights of Kurt Warner throwing a bomb to Isaac Bruce for a 73-yard touchdown pass with 1:54 to go and then Mike Jones' last-second tackle to save the game. With the debate, there were no highlights -- just Al Gore and George W. Bush.

The only thing the Fourth Estate had at the debate that those at home on their couches didn't was pundits on demand. As soon as the debate ended, roving congressmen, politicos and borderline celebrities walked in, each followed by a person bearing a placard with the pundit's name on it. Each pundit wore a badge clearly reading "Bush" or "Gore," just in case anyone was confused.

Like many of his colleagues, Cragg Hines, Washington, D.C., columnist for the Houston Chronicle, walked over to check out the woman standing beneath the sign reading "Erin Brockovich." Hines could have passed for a bow-tied Orson Welles as he eyeballed Erin. That's Orson Welles circa the Paul Masson ad -- nothing like the thinner Charles Foster Kane. But when Hines discovered who it actually was beneath the sign, he turned on his heel to head back to his table. "Oh, it's the real Erin Brockovich," Hines said in mock disgust. "I thought it would be Julia Roberts."

The fact that it was the real Erin Brockovich -- whoever that is by now -- was a bit of a surprise. Maybe the Democrats couldn't convince Julia to show up to shill for Gore. They did persuade Rob Reiner, watched by millions for years as Archie Bunker's son-in-law on All in the Family, and Al Franken, known from Saturday Night Live, his book on Rush Limbaugh and his Stuart Smalley movie, to proselytize for Gore.

Reiner was flustered when Short Cuts asked what issues he disagreed with Nader on, saying he didn't know Nader's positions on capital punishment or abortion. When told Nader is against capital punishment, Reiner responded, "He is? Well, it's interesting, because I'm against capital punishment myself." What a meathead. Gore's in favor of capital punishment. But, then, it shouldn't be surprising that Reiner is involved in the campaign, because, like Gore and Bush, he's a fortunate son doing well in Daddy's business.

Franken got testy when asked whether it worried him that in a room full of congressmen, he was the most popular interview subject. "I've been asked that by so many journalists tonight," Al said. "Think of a new question." Okeedokee. What do you disagree with Nader on? "NAFTA and world trade," said Al. "That's a big issue, but I can't think of another issue off the top of my head." Franken insisted that it made sense to keep Nader and Pat Buchanan out of the debate, because they have no chance of winning the election. Minnesota was right to let Jesse Ventura in, he said, because Ventura had sufficient support. Wrong. Ventura was drawing just under 10 percent before the first of eight debates. By the time the second one was over, Ventura's support had jumped to 21 percent.

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