Archive for Friday, October 6, 2000

Debate was the Boston Bust

October 6, 2000


— In this town soaked in the political brawls of the Kennedys, Lodges, O'Neills and Hurleys, they love a good fight.

They didn't get one Tuesday night.

The Brouhaha in Beantown the much-anticipated TV debate between Al Gore and George W. Bush turned out to be the Boston Bust.

The uninspiring, stilted gabfest by Gore and Bush may have left viewers wondering whether either man is ready for prime time.

There have been campaign debates in the past you think of Kennedy vs. Nixon or Carter vs. Reagan that crackled with tension, wit and in-your-face drama.

Not the ho-hum Al vs. Dubya show, which will rank as one of the least memorable presidential debates in 40 years.

In fact, their picayune bickering made NBC and Fox network poobahs look like geniuses for televising baseball and a sci-fi thriller.

Even Ed Rendell, former Philly mayor who is Democratic National chairman, gave a scornful, dismissive shrug after the event:

"Dull debate."

He was right. Had this been a prizefight, moderator Jim Lehrer would have warned both pugs for clinching and holding.

If a ringsider had to pick a winner, I'd tab Gore but only by default because Bush's performance was more lackluster, unfocused and without fire.

Bob Dole, a veteran of these TV scrimmages, had said of Bush: "He's got to prove he's ready for the job that he fills the suit."

The jury's still out on Dubya.

Sure, Bush was free of the gaffes, malapropisms and stumbles that have made him a target of late-night comics. But Dubya never took command of the stage. He fell back on campaign cliches and a maze of numbers. Running against an incumbent veep, Bush had to dominate to win. He merely survived.

The hunch is that the 2000 race's dynamics have been little changed, although Gore may have solidified his backing with suburban moms and seniors.

The Boston scrum was hyped as a match between The Robot and The Dunce. Oddly, it brought out the worst in both the Gore and Bush stereotypes.

Gore, whose smooch of Tipper and solid convention speech seemed to humanize him, reverted to the disagreeable persona of his Bill Bradley primary debates. He was either condescending toward Bush or lecturing in his singsong cadence like Mr. Rogers teaching ABC's to first-graders.

While Bush avoided blunders, he didn't entirely shake the lightweight image that's plagued him. He didn't venture beyond his base stump message. When Gore skewered his tax cuts, Bush repeatedly muttered, "Fuzzy thinking."

Gore showed off in mid-debate by correctly pronouncing "Vojislav Kostunica." Bush wisely called the Yugoslav presidential candidate "that man."

They split dramatically on drilling for oil in the Alaskan wildlife parkland Gore against, Bush for it. They divided on abortion and the newly approved RU-486 pill. Gore predicted Bush would appoint Supreme Court Justices who would dismantle Roe vs. Wade, while Bush insisted he only wanted "strict constructionists."

Bill Clinton's name never came up but Lehrer gave Bush a terrific opening at the debate's end to play a song on Clinton Fatigue.

Dubya lashed at Gore's ducking the White House campaign scandals under his rubric, "no controlling legal authority." "You've got to look at how he's handled responsibility," said Bush of Gore. "Who is to lead?"

He was served a soft ball for a home run and looped a weak single.

We know Al and George think the other guy will plunge the country into the economic blahs. And they can both recite a storm of numbers about taxes, Social Security and education. But together they're like making fire from wet wood - no profundity, humor or passion.

Makes you miss John McCain.

Round Two and Three have to get better.

Or like so many Broadway dogs, the Al & Dubya Show will close in Boston.

Sandy Grady is a Washington columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News.

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