Observing US:
A column about America,
by Marylaine Block
originally published by
Fox News Online, 1998-2000

#108, October 10, 2000


by Marylaine Block

Some people argue we can't learn much from presidential debates. I think we learn a good deal, and not just about the issues.

I learned Tuesday night that, whoever wins, I won't LIKE the next President. I thought Gore was pushy, rolling right over Jim Lehrer's feeble efforts to enforce the rules, and his loud, pained sighs were annoying. I even started feeling sorry for rich people as Gore kept harping on how they'd get most of Bush's tax cuts without explaining what was wrong with that. To top it off, he did a piss-poor job of explaining some policies I actually agree with.

Bush was no better, though. I was put off by his manner, the practiced charm of a boy who doesn't want you to notice that, as usual, he didn't do his homework. From time to time the charm slipped, because he couldn't resist a few smirking digs at Gore.

[I don't much like the third candidate in the race, either. Ralph Nader, who wasn't allowed to participate, is off-putting by his very purity and dedication. It's hard to like people who make you feel hopelessly inadequate.]

But then again, who says we have to like our presidents? A hundred years ago, that would have been a foreign concept, because presidents were people we only read about. Voting for them was not a commitment to seeing them in our living rooms on a regular basis. They were distant figures we would judge by their actions and speeches, and what mattered was whether we respected them.

So, the next question was whether these men came prepared to the debate, with a record of accomplishment that squares with what they say they will do.

Gore didn't have to do any homework. He already had the easy mastery of issues that comes from a lifetime immersed in policy and public service. It was obvious that he understood Bush's proposals better than Bush did. The things Gore has worked for, like health insurance reform and tax credits for the working poor, justify his assertion that he's for the people, not for the powerful (though as chief point man on NAFTA and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade he's made the powerful quite happy, too).

Bush flunked. It's hard to respect a man this lightweight and unprepared. But my real problem with him is that his actions as governor don't match his rhetoric about compassionate conservatism. How could an honorable man continually mouth the words "leave no child behind" after doing everything possible to discourage poor families from applying for the Medicaid and children's health insurance they're eligible for? How could a compassionate person save money on children's health in order to give tax breaks to the oil industry?

Bush reminds me of Warren G. Harding, the president elected after World War I. Like Bush, Harding had no interest in public policy, and very little understanding of it. So Harding turned the government over to his friends, who proceeded to enrich themselves with the federal oil reserves entrusted to their care. Bush has already turned the University of Texas endowment over to his friends to run as a kind of private kitty, and now hopes to give his oil buddies our Alaska Wildlife Refuge for a truly special birthday present.

I learned from Tuesday's debate that even more than I dislike these men, I dislike the way we discuss political ideas in this country -- the hectoring, the combativeness, the use of numbers and facts as weapons rather than ways to make their proposals understandable.

Then I watched the vice-presidential debate: two serious, knowledgeable men who treated each other respectfully and calmly exchanged and explained their views. Since some of the questions were unexpected, we got to see actual thinking going on, instead of just canned speeches. It was a model of how people should discuss profound differences. What we learned from that debate is that it IS still possible for politics to be civil, and that politicians CAN be more interested in serving us than squabbling with each other.

And we learned that we have do in fact have some power -- this new style of debate came about because we told politicians how much we hated their nasty quarrels. We can tell them that from now on, we won't settle for less than civil, courteous debate.

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