Tuesday evening, we saw for the first time what happens when Vice President Al Gore and Texas Governor George W. Bush go at each other. It was only the third time they were in the same room, and the first that they exchanged more than pleasantries. Between Gore's heavy sighs whenever Bush said something, and Bush's lack of concrete statements, it was hard to watch. The men were so prepared that they seemed more unnatural than natural and more irritating than reassuring. Especially in this format, the debates tell us absolutely nothing about the candidates.
Both candidates had annoyingly thick stage faces applied, and both dripped with an obtrusive air of showmanship. Their game plans were obvious in their political rhetoric. Gore repeated the phrase, "If you entrust me with the Presidency," time and time again. In one response, he almost forgot but threw it in mid-sentence anyway. At the same time, Bush repeatedly uttered the line "fuzzy math." He used this as both a defense and an offense, which only made him look weak. Their repetitive language, while attempting to be emphatic, resulted in providing the debate with an unnatural scripted quality.
News Hour anchorman Jim Lehrer mediated the debate. His questions were pointed and direct. However, he was busy enforcing the debate rules both candidates had set up, but that both only wanted enforced on the other guy. Both agreed that three and a half minutes to answer a question was plenty, but decided that their responses deserved as much time as they could milk out of the milquetoast moderator. After every response, the candidates asked him to interject with just one little thing, that quickly turned into an irritating multi-minute tirade.
Though the forum for the debate was filled with invited guests, there was no applause or audience reaction allowed. At first, this seemed to help retain the serious air of the sponsored television extravaganza. However, it became clear that both men were trying to avoid allowing the other the glory of a one-liner. This was unnatural because both men were trying to be relaxed and even show a sense of humor. Yet, it was awkward when there was no response to their attempted jokes from the audience. Post joke, there was that weird silence that occurs after an unfunny attempt at humor.
Bush supplied the only humor in his inability to give a direct answer to a direct attack. Gore dared him to deny that he was favoring the wealthiest top one percent of the taxpayers. Bush responded with a catchphrase that was hard to interpret, once again referring to "fuzzy math." To which Gore again reminded viewers that Bush still had not given a straight answer. Gore then put Bush on the spot by asking him to join him in support of the McCain-Feingold Campaign Finance Reform Bill. Bush would neither deny nor accept the challenge. He simply spoke around the issue. He could only respond to accusations with irritating catchphrases.
Neither of the candidates came prepared to talk about the issues. Rather, they came with snazzed-up versions of the stump speeches they have been giving every day for months. Gore's responses, at least, sounded more candid. His points were straight, and he supplied the public with a clear view of what he believes. Bush could not give a straight answer to save his life. Bush spoke of "positive achievements," but not steps to attain them. Inresponse to attacks his responses were full of generalizations. Long wordy responses presented in the form of scripted political rhetoric were so pervasive that the mediator had to clarify the answers often. Bush was clear on that he is pro-life, but not on whether he would totally uphold Roe vs. Wade.
With Gore constantly mentioning his "twenty-four years of public service," Bush was always searching for a loophole to throw in a "what have you been doing for the last seven years." Gore dared and Bush evaded in a spooky puppet show where both the actors and the audience were restrained by the bonds of a strictly controlled environment. Later that evening, David Letterman suggested that they should just "give em a pair of nunchaks and let them settle it like men" Then, we might see the real blood and guts behind the campaign.