NEW YORK, NEW YORK — Watching the third and final presidential debate last week, two things became startlingly clear.
The first is that this series of debates may have been the most important aspect of what has been a grindingly long presidential campaign: despite the best efforts of the candidates to obfuscate their substantive issues in a farrago of attacks on the opposition, mild to outrageous misrepresentation of their own positions, and boilerplate campaign rhetoric, the president and Senator Kerry actually managed to present two distinct perspectives on where they wanted to take the country, and invited the viewers and voters to choose between them. (They also presented two distinct perspectives on the way things actually stand in America and Iraq, but that's a matter for another forum.)
The second is that this series of debates may have contained the most disappointing moments in a long series of disappointments throughout that selfsame grindingly long presidential campaign.
These disappointments came precisely from the sense of promise that pervaded the debate. It seemed, finally, that Bush was going to actually have to respond to a real live critic who shared the stage with him, in marked contrast to his highly staged campaign events, some of which even require signing a document of intent to vote for the president before allowing entrance.
It seemed, finally, that Kerry was going to have to answer questions and state opinions in a length of time sufficiently short so that even his most vociferous supporters find themselves losing heart. (And anyway, let's be honest, "vociferous" and "Kerry supporter" are not phrases that often appear in the same sentence, unless that sentence reads, "Kerry supporters are not particularly vociferous, except when it comes to defeating George W. Bush.")
But, most importantly, we expected some sort of sense of resolution because this is what years of watching television and movies have taught us to expect. In an entertainment-driven world, we expect finality, completion, particularly for things that come in threes - though aesthetic purists can certainly live without the third "Matrix" movie and possibly "The Return of the Jedi," those of us who care about how the stories end are pretty glad that they got made.
Obviously, it would have been impossible and possibly unwise for the American people to vote right after the end of the third debate (although, in a world where around fifty million Americans call in to decide who will be the next American idol, this assertion may need some re-examination). Still, the main disappointment didn't come from not declaring an ultimate winner, but from the fact that at any given moment of the debate, on almost any issue, the structure of the debate short-circuited real argument by not allowing much of a follow-up, a real give and take that might have achieved some resolution.
An admission, willing or no, by the President that in fact, he had made some sort of mistake during his term; his half-admission that he had made some misjudgments when it came to appointments was a dodge and an abdication of personal responsibility (since, after all, he only picked the wrong people; they did the bad things.) He should have been called on it.
An acknowledgement, willing or no, by John Kerry that some of his positions are somewhat Pollyannish, that there are real doubts about whether he can assemble international support for his foreign policy positions and return the nation to fiscal responsibility. He should have been called on that until he responded to it, not batted it aside. (Now, he might respond that he's starting from a bad situation, digging himself out of the deep hole the President has put the country in, but it's reasonable to question him sharply about the quality of his shovel.)
And - I'm sorry - as revelatory as scowls and smirks may be, as interesting as it is for the mandarins to parse podium heights and length of handshakes and wideness of smiles, these debates were ultimately about getting to something deeper.
And any time they got close to that depth, the moderators moved on, required to do so by the Commission on Presidential Debates, who had bowed to the complex series of rules negotiated by the candidates. And so the viewer felt a constant barrage of minor disappointments, as at any minute their sense that they were about to witness a real development or resolution was cut short by a flashing light or a quiet "We have to go to the next question."
The Commission has, as became clear in this year of constantly staged and plastic events, an awesome responsibility and tremendous power, allowing us to see the candidates as close to who they really are as we're going to get. Next time, they have to wield that power more rigorously.