The two minute drill, as applied to politics

Clinton-Dole 'debate-ette' on '60 Minutes' is short and shows how genre has changed.

Never before have two minutes of television been more anticipated by the American people, at least, maybe not since Joe Millionaire picked his princess.

The much-ballyhooed face-off between former President Bill Clinton and his friendly rival Bob Dole, the former senator, came off without a hitch on Sunday - and that may have been the problem.

Touted as a gentlemanly return to civilized television debate, the exchange was historic because it's the first time a former president has taken on such a commercial venture. But it functioned more as a reminder of how much commercial television news has degenerated since the original "Point/Counterpoint" of "60 Minutes" graced the airwaves through the 1970s.

The segments of the Clinton-versus-Dole exchange - more aptly named a "debate-ette" for its truncated length - were 45 seconds each. In 1968, that was about the length of the average sound bite on television news.

"It's not a happy successor to Shana and Kilpo," says University of Virginia political analyst Larry Sabato, referring to Shana Alexander and James Kilpatrick, whose sharp-tongued exchanges were twice that length on the original "Point/Counterpoint." "I can't imagine this will be all that interesting after the novelty wears off."

Coup for an aging show

When "60 Minutes" first announced last week that producer Don Hewitt had landed two such prominent figures, it prompted a flurry of coverage that the aging "Grand Dame of Television Newsmagazines" was sorely in need of. In the past year, the show has lost more than a million viewers, causing it to forfeit its place in the top-10 rated shows for the first time in 20 years. The Clinton/Dole matchup, named Dole/Clinton every other week, was expected to jump-start the ratings.

"The collective experience of these two is formidable," says Robert Thompson of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University, when he first heard about it. "They'll really be able to shoot from the hip. They're not going to have to tow the party line."

But both did behave and tow the party line. Some critics blamed the topic of discussion itself - "Can we afford a tax cut and a war?" Predictably, the centrist-liberal Mr. Clinton, one of whose most notable achievements was taming the deficit and reviving the economy, said "no."

"Now when we're cutting back on everything from homeland security to education, and with Iraq still to pay for, your party wants another big tax cut," Clinton said into the camera, with just a touch of incredulity in his characteristic Southern intonation.

In calling for both guns and butter, Mr. Dole, best known for his conservative but pragmatic views, didn't stray from President Bush's regular pronouncements.

"This is global - a war to protect American lives and preserve the American way of life," Dole countered. "Which means, among other things, the freedom to save or invest our own money instead of Washington taking it from us."

Previous encounters

Mr. Sabato says he wasn't surprised by the uninspired nature of the exchanges. "The Clinton-Dole debates [of 1996] were the least memorable of all of the presidential debates. Nothing, absolutely nothing was said that lasted a day, much less stood the test of history," says Sabato.

Yet others praised it as a relief from the shouting fests that have replaced thoughtful dialogue on most political commentary shows. They urged "60 Minutes" to expand the 45-second format to give each man a chance for his well-known wit to shine.

"It was a great idea, but it was more like a commercial than it was part of the program," says Mr. Thompson. "That's my biggest complaint: '60 Minutes' got all dressed up but left no place for these people to go."

Some critics, particularly younger ones, think the problem has more to do with the nature of TV news itself. "Network news is so sensational now, I equate it with the tabloids like the New York Post," says Jan Greenfield, a New York City resident and recent graduate of Middlebury College in Vermont. "It's just profit driven."

Ms. Greenfield didn't bother to watch the actual debate. She'd already seen the "Saturday Night Live" parody in which Dan Aykroyd returned to play his trademark sourpuss Dole. She preferred it by far.

Indeed, network news has lost its relevance for many Americans. On an average Sunday night, 16 million viewers tune into "60 Minutes" - while more than 40 million tuned in last month to find out which anxious bachelorette would win Joe Millionaire's heart.

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