A kid's view of debates – great expectations dashed

Have you ever watched a televised candidates' debate in the company of a child old enough to understand it? I did recently. It's an eye-opener.

Like a good citizen, I briefed my sons on the solemn importance of what was taking place. I informed them that the candidates – for governor of Massachusetts – were vying for a job that is extremely important, and the winner will be empowered to make major decisions impacting the health and welfare of many people.

Having conveyed the giant stakes involved – i.e., this is not some doofus network game show – I watched my kids dutifully prepare to listen, scrunching close to the screen to catch every nuance.

Then, to my dismay, I realized my kids were actually expecting this to be an epic battle of titans. They were under the impression they'd be watching a joust between the two smartest people in the field or, at the very least, the people with the most consummate artistry in the qualities on such vivid display – namely, public speaking and the expression of big ideas.

In fact, the men and women up there squinting into the TV lights are not the best we have to offer, not when it comes to verbal dexterity. Often, they're little more than competent. Tapes of the Bush-vs-Gore face-to-face clangers during the 2000 presidential campaign, featuring haughty smirking, facile sloganeering ("a uniter, not a divider"), and a major assault on basic grammar ought to prove the point.

One can question whether kids raised in the razzle-dazzle of today's multimedia circus are even capable of being enthralled by political debating at its most exciting – Lincoln-Douglas, say, or Kennedy-Nixon. I think the answer is yes, but the fairest test would be to gauge their reaction to a superb performance, not a lackluster one.

Besides, a whole lot more than lower Nielsen ratings is at risk when these pinnacle events of election season fail to inspire heightened interest.

Sadly, these prime time, limelight, showcase episodes – the Super Bowls, World Cups, and World Series of our political system – demonstrate to anyone not already numbed by diminished expectations something very troubling: Either we don't require our candidates to excel at the various forms of oral communication that comprise our primary means of evaluating them, or we have accepted mediocrity in an arena we profess to value highly.

And my children know it. They've been around adults, many adults, who speak more clearly and with greater sincerity, who manage to say what they mean without always resorting to hackneyed oversimplifications and snippy rejoinders.

Suddenly on that debate night, I felt like a chump. It was as if I'd taken the kids to Fenway Park and, instead of the Red Sox vs. Yankees, they found themselves watching a slow-pitch softball game in the over-40 league.

I could, as a concerned parent, try to soothe my disappointed children by explaining the harsh facts of political life. I could cite academic studies on how the withering campaign process self-selects for candidates with certain limitations. I could mention that there is more to leadership than flashy rhetoric and stirring concepts.

Privately, of course, most of us wish these debates were a veritable all-star game, an Olympiad of verbal skill and ideological vision. We wish they were a chance for the entire family, the neighborhood, the country to gather together for a scintillating clash among our best and brightest. We wish they were a performance of the sharpness of mind and eloquence of expression that makes us special, strong, and free.

We wish we didn't feel about candidate debate nights the way we feel about Christmas Eve, wanting to put the kids to bed early so they might wake in the morning still believing in something wonderful.

As it is, we prefer not to mention it. Most morning-after commentary in newspapers, radio, and TV is polite and restrained, as though the debates were a grammar school play and the reviewers were cautious about hurting anyone's feelings.

I'm afraid the reason we don't mention this is because we're not especially proud of it. Our leaders' ineptness as persuasive speakers – and our willingness to pretend it isn't so – has become our nation's dirty little secret.

Bob Katz is a freelance writer and coauthor of 'The New Public School Parent.'

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