The debates - a view from the inside out

IT was with a slight pang of jealousy that we watched excerpts of last week's debates between the candidates who want to be the next prime minister of Canada. They were verbal jousts, even honest-to-goodness passion. But then, Canada's politicians have always been less restrained than those in the United States. It's been three weeks since Michael Dukakis and George Bush uttered the final words in their Los Angeles debate, shook hands, and strode off the stage. While there were sighs of relief from the candidates, their aides, and newsmen covering the debates, none were more heartfelt than ours. Seated at the timekeeping table above and behind the candidates, peering through the camera slot in the backdrop, we were the only people in America to see the debates from the inside out. And while they were not of the knock-down, bare-knuckled Canadian variety, they were informative and influential.

This year, as in each presidential campaign since 1976, the televised debates dominated the post-convention political dialogue. The debates were seen by 160 million Americans, more than ever before, despite increasing competition from VCRs and cable channels.

The debates, by their very nature, deserve such attention. They can, and did, provide moments of high drama and lasting images. One has only to look at the public-opinion polls taken before and after to see that the high stakes placed on debate performance were warranted.

The 1988 debates were sponsored for the first time by a new entity in American politics: the Commission on Presidential Debates. It was created in 1987 after a panel of distinguished citizens recommended that the parties participate in debate sponsorship to ensure their continuation and quality. The commission, with an independent 10-member board of directors, has raised all its funds through private donations and employed a professional production team to organize the debates.

It is true that there was the usual pre-debate maneuvering by the campaigns. The number of debates proved controversial. The League of Women Voters, scheduled to be host to the Los Angeles event, pulled out at the 11th hour huffing about the ``Meet the Press'' format, even though it was virtually identical to that used by the league in 1976, 1980, and 1984.

But these were minor distractions. The selection of journalists for the panels was conducted smoothly and quietly. The journalists chosen approached their task with a deep sense of purpose and a high degree of professionalism. At no time were the panelists or moderators given instructions on what questions to ask.

While we were in direct communication with the moderator, the network pool producing the television coverage, and the candidates' staffs during the debates, it was only for the purpose of giving necessary time cues and perfecting the technical aspects of the debate.

What about 1992? Will we see debates as tightly drawn as this year's, or will we see something closer to the rowdier Canadian version? No doubt an incumbent president will be seeking reelection. While there is no requirement that he debate, the precedent set by Presidents Ford, Carter, and Reagan will probably govern.

As for the format, certain political realities apply. By the time they reach the national level, politicians are comfortable and skilled at answering journalists' questions. The ``Meet the Press'' format might best be described by Winston Churchill's comment on democracy: the worst form of government - except for all the rest.

The true value of debates lies in their ability to transmit information to voters. The debates of 1988 have done just that.

Janet Brown is the executive director and Ed Fouhy the executive producer of the Commission on Presidential Debates.

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