It would be far too facile to say of the Presidential contenders that any New Yorker who chose to watch them rather than the Yankees on Oct. 17 required immediate and perhaps massive treatment for an assortment of brain-related maladies. The fact is, of course, that baseball-even playoff baseball, and even an all–New York World Series-is frivolous, like my golf game, or your fashion-magazine subscription, or your neighbor’s obsession with the television show of the moment, or my friend’s regular visits to the local Multiplex.
Politics, on the other hand, probably will affect your life in some meaningful way in the next four or eight years. Perhaps you or a child of yours will be dispatched overseas to fight a war or keep a peace. Maybe you’ll get a voucher to send your kids to private or parochial school. Maybe a promised tax reduction will come to pass and you’ll save for that early retirement which, you are certain, will give you the time to see the world or write that novel or master the trumpet. Maybe the new President will lose the confidence of the lords of finance, and they will move your job to Malaysia. Maybe you’ll use your new power to invest your Social Security money in the market the day before the crash.
In the third and final debate, Al Gore and George W. Bush talked about things that matter: health care, education, race, taxes. They took questions not from know-it-all gas bags but from those holding the highest title a republic can confer: citizen. Not surprisingly, then, the third debate was by far the best and most enlightening.
The preceding conclusion is based on a reading of the debate transcript, not on a close viewing of the proceedings. I watched the Yankees instead, tuning in to the debate only during those long commercial breaks between innings. Having conceded the importance of politics and, ultimately, the frivolity of sports, I will admit that I find Joe Torre vs. Bobby Valentine far more interesting than Al Gore vs. George W. Bush, or Rick Lazio vs. Hillary Clinton.
Now, the practiced scoffers among the pundit set-particularly those on the government-hating right-no doubt would argue that this is the natural order of things. Sometime soon, the Sunday morning yakkers and Op-Ed blowhards will say (as they do every year) that “real” people pay attention to politics only after the World Series, which they will cite as proof of the citizenry’s sanity. It is a claim made in an oddly satisfied tone, similar to career Washington types citing the depredations of other career Washington types. If political pundits are somehow delighted that decent people don’t pay attention to elections until after the World Series, then what does that say about the importance and power of the pundits, who, after all, live for politics?
Actually, our disinterest in choosing our leaders may be less attributable to pleasant distractions like the World Series or general apathy than to the suppression of all voices save for the bland. Al Gore may be really smart and George W. Bush may be really charming, but ultimately both are automatons delivering carefully constructed messages designed to appeal to the soft center. Because of who they are and what they wish to accomplish, they avoid hard issues and the big picture.
How different these debates would have been had Ralph Nader, the Green Party candidate, and Pat Buchanan, the Reform Party candidate, been invited to deliver their non-poll-tested ideas about, say, a reform of the nation’s drug laws and immigration policies; or about globalization-on which Mr. Nader and Mr. Buchanan have much in common with each other and nothing with Mr. Gore and Mr. Bush-and the nation’s role overseas. (Police officer? Peacekeeper? Human rights agitator?) They were the missing voices-and perhaps not coincidentally, they might have forced Mr. Bush and Mr. Gore to think rather than recite. Mr. Nader would have challenged Mr. Gore from the left, Mr. Buchanan would have questioned Mr. Bush’s conservative credentials, and both would have demanded that they explain exactly how average Americans-that is, the people watching the World Series-would benefit from the glories of globalism and the supposed riches of the New Economy.
Neither Ralph Nader nor Pat Buchanan will be the next President. But, unlike the man who will be, they have a core set of beliefs and can explain themselves without having to hire drama coaches and professional liars. A four-way debate would have touched on topics and broader issues that otherwise went unaddressed. (Imagine Mr. Nader arguing not for little health-care changes, but for single-payer insurance; picture Mr. Buchanan flaying the corporate candidates on trade issues.)
We watch the World Series instead of Presidential debates because the talking heads and the hacks offer us nothing but mush, and are content when we reject it.