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That’s infotainment!

Dem Debates Need a Makeover

by Matt Taibbi

Separated at birth: The set of Weakest Link…and a Democratic presidential debate?
Last week, on the morning after the first of six debates between presidential candidates sponsored by the national Democratic Party, I called the press office of the Democratic National Committee.

"Hi," I said. "My name is Matt Taibbi. I’m a columnist for The Beast. I have a question: What genius decided to hold the first debate at the same time as the opening game of the NFL season?"

Click. Dial tone. I’ve been getting that a lot lately.

While I was watching the debate last Thursday, I was reminded of a Richard Pryor routine about meeting Ronald Reagan while shooting Superman III: "I met the president. We in trouble."

The debate, the first ever to be held at least partly in two languages (it was held by Governor Bill Richardson and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus in New Mexico), was an embarrassing spectacle for the Democratic Party, revealing most all of the candidates to be the drooling, vapid morons we all expected them to be. But worse than that, it was bad television. It was, in fact, the perfect metaphor for the Democratic Party itself: too compromised and cowardly to be substantive, but too pretentious and self-conscious to be good theater.

I would have preferred the substance, but given that this is impossible in the current climate, I have an idea for spicing up the debate format. The debates ought to be modeled after the excellent Game Show Network vehicle Russian Roulette, a Weakest Link-type affair where the losers are actually sucked through the floor when they give incorrect answers.

As I watched last week, I imagined moderators Maria Elena Salinas and Ray Suarez giving their bilingual instructions to the candidates.

SUAREZ: Each candidate will be given one minute to respond, and at the end of a minute, a warning light will flash. Candidates will not be interrupted unless they go past one and a half minutes. Also, as an additional incentive, candidates who tell even one lie will be sucked through a hole in the floor into a pit of hungry alligators.

SALINAS: (smiling and gesturing) Si usted miente, le aspirara en un agujero de cocodrilos hambrientos!

SUAREZ: Do the candidates agree to the conditions?

The candidates all nod eagerly. Ten seconds later, half of them start checking their watches.

"Shit, I’ve got to meet some old buddies from my unit," says Kerry, gathering papers and looking for an exit. "We were going to have a discussion about real heroism…"

The floor opens: thrashing, screams, tufts of hair floating upward.

Dean smiles and collects his notes. "As a doctor, I have to go write a prescription for change…" Whoosh: splashing, screaming.

Lieberman clears his throat. "I, uh, have to go home and jerk off to footage of the Bataan death march," he says.

Nothing. He’s still standing there. The crowd begins to murmur. The senator grits his teeth and fidgets.

"Just kidding," he says, smiling. "What I really have to do is go home and complete my plan for providing Real Leadership…"

A thunderclap of cracking wood: half the stage opens, sucking Braun and Gephardt in with him. A fountain of blood shoots to the ceiling.

If only life were that interesting. As it was, the debate did little but further the demeaning horseracing process that has come to represent the sum total of "campaigning." The format, with its one-minute mini-speeches larded with Nerf-insults and computer-generated one-liners (Edwards, trying lamely to appeal to Hispanic viewers, even used the "Hasta la vista" line), was tailor-made to fit the sportswriter storyline more or less decided upon in advance by the press. We knew going in that this debate was going to be the one that saw the other candidates attack the perceived frontrunner, Howard Dean, and we knew going in that we were going to see a "kindler, gentler" Dean who would discard his old "combativeness" and assume a more mellow, confident posture.

Indeed, all of this came to pass, with a few minor surprises on the horseracing front (i.e., Kerry laying off Dean), allowing columnists like Walter Shapiro of USA Today to rattle off the kind of analyses that pass for political commentary these days:

"The usually combative [Dean] suddenly chose to blend into the background…

"One of the difficulties that Democrats face in trying to dethrone Dean is that the attacker risks antagonizing voters and driving them to support a candidate who remained above the fray…"

This kind of analysis reduces the whole campaign process to words like "attack," "antagonize," "above the fray," "centrist," "left," "shift," "moderate," etc., all describing strategy and various movements on the image front, none describing substance.

The general consensus in the debate post-mortems was that Dean’s status as the frontrunner was unchanged. Analysts who came to this conclusion must have been watching a different debate than the one I saw. Oddly enough, I thought Dennis Kucinich was the winner. While the other candidates deflected questions and went into ad hominem attacks on Bush, Kucinich gave clear, unequivocal answers to each of the questions posed.

Asked what concessions the U.S. can make if it ends up seeking U.N. support in Iraq, Kucinich was the only one who didn’t simply blast Bush for not asking for U.N. help in the first place; he answered right away that the U.S. can’t expect foreign troops to serve exclusively under U.S. command, and said we have to "bring the troops home" and let the U.N. in. (To be fair, Dean also said that he wouldn’t have U.S. troops serving under U.N. command). On NAFTA and the WTO, Kucinich said flatly that he would cancel both his first day in office. Noting that the other candidates’ proposals for altering NAFTA to include labor standards would violate the WTO, he said that unless you cancel both agreements, "all of this is just talk."

Kucinich was largely left out of the post-mortems because the media has decided in advance that because he looks like Bob Denver and has no money, he is an afterthought in this campaign. His only mention in the Shapiro piece was a pithy description of him as a "left-wing Ohio gadfly."

While on a plane with the Dean campaign last week, I polled a number of the reporters on several questions. One was, "What do you think the word ‘left’ means?" And the other was, "What is the journalistic value of horseracing?"

Regarding the first question, one reporter, who had described Dean as being "far to the left of his rivals," explained that when she wrote this she did not consider Kucinich, Sharpton or Braun, because "we don’t consider them real candidates."

Regarding the second question, no fewer than four reporters said that without horseracing, someone like Kucinich might win. "Hell, if it came down to a battle of position papers, Kucinich might win," said Jackson Baker of the Memphis Flyer, one of the true good guys in the press pool.

Mark Silva of the Orlando Sentinel had a similar take: "I think that horseracing is important because it tells a reader why I’m spending so much time with this or that candidate, with a Howard Dean instead of, say, a Dennis Kucinich."

The next day, Silva ran an article containing a quote from former Washington governor Booth Gardner, comparing Howard Dean to Seabiscuit.

Horseracing is about one thing: the media telling us who isn’t too ugly or too radical to run for president. It’d be nice if they let us make those decisions.


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