Deserving debates: An hour when television just stood there and took the pictures

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They're no match for the media access President-candidate Reagan enjoys, but the current series of television ''debates'' among the Democratic presidential aspirants begins, at least, to redress some of the imbalance.

Every place the President goes, the media tag along behind and these days, every place the President goes, so goes the Republican presidential candidate. It's a mammoth political advantage.

This week's foreign policy discussion at Harvard, parading after the three-hour session at Dartmouth (Jan. 15) and an earlier Harvard presentation (last Oct. 13) impress many observers as valuable television and important informing of the public.

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The forum room where Harvard presents these discussions is quite new, modernistic, small, and congenial. It's a town meeting setting. New England cherishes such places and such occasions. You sit on benches, chairs, stairways. Happily, you can't get far from the principals. There's a valuable closeness in the room which may even reach out to the country through TV networking. At least that's an important potential if TV viewers will catch it.

I sat upstairs with a group of graduate students, two of whom wrote such good questions they were invited downstairs to the best seats to put their inquiries to the candidates.

I wanted to ask Walter Mondale: ''Do you judge the Soviet Union fundamentally incapable of negotiating meaningfully on the major East-West issues of the day, or just situationally unwilling?'' But the judges, one from Harvard, one from the Boston Globe, liked seven student questions better.

At one point the audience hissed at a flawed question from a guest reporter and applauded when the reporter was scolded by one of the candidates. They clapped again when one of the candidates stirred some approval. They especially liked a quote George McGovern offered from former Sen. Frank Church which appealed for attention to mankind's needs rather than so fixedly to his politics. They liked a number of Jesse Jackson comments about the third world, not outer space, being the frontier most in need of attention.

Not even the adroit and personable TV moderator could stifle the spontaneity. Not even the production assistants holding up, in series, signs with big numbers '':30,'' '':15,'' and, to announce the ultimate tyranny of limited time, one lettered ''please stop.'' Not even these most persistent television agents detoured public involvement in the occasion.

It was encouraging: Television was almost noble in the situation this week. It just stood there and took the picture. No haranguing. No flamboyance. Just comfortable with the presence of seven public figures (Reubin Askew was elsewhere) asking the American public for trust and votes.

There was a newspaper presence as well. Two print reporters asked questions. The Boston Globe was a co-sponsor. All the media were there to take notes. One of the best of the next day's reports came at dawn on National Public Radio. Commercial radio had been there the night before, to transmit just the audio of the event.

Harvard supplied two professors to ask questions on international economics and politics. They queried clearly and then carefully pursued the straying or dodging of a candidate's answer.

Over and over again it felt like one of those fine social evenings one occasionally manages at home when it turns out you've invited just the right guests to lift some needed intelligence and vision into the conversation. The confrontation level is under control. The insights that can be drawn out of all of us by curiosity and teachability appear and linger.

There have been complaints for weeks that American political campaigns cost too much and take too long. This one in particular.

There are nine months to go. Some viewers at home may be developing boredom already. In part, that may be because there are so few spaces on American television these days that offer such lengthy conversational talk on complex issues by people who just might head the country some day.

It may turn out that the 1984 presidential campaign year is barely long enough to make sure everybody understands these issues. The stakes have never been more important for individual and collective well-being, and maybe it's time we treated our span of interest to the adventure, once again, of learning and inquiring. One television hour per week or per month seems minimal for discussions like these. But viewers will need to extend themselves enough to care, one of those basics of democracy. And after judging the politicians' command of facts, the public must judge capacity to lead.

One may remember how gloomy Charles Dickens was with the press when he visited the United States. ''While the newspaper press of America is in, or near , its present abject state, high moral improvement in that country is impossible ,'' he recorded in ''American Notes'' in 1842.

''It would be well,'' he added, ''for the American people as a whole, if they loved the Real less, and the Ideal somewhat more.''

Mr. Dickens might have felt quite comfortable at Harvard this week, coming in out of an overcast, crunching-snow night to unfurl muffler, doff top hat, and (after a rather thorough security check at the door) sit down beside a professor or a politician. He might even have managed to offer one of the better questions.

More important, and if he could forgive the hot, bright lights, he might even have noticed signs of progress in the state of the American media of information. As for ''high moral improvement in (the) country,'' that's up to the rest of us, as it was long ago.

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