Saturday, September 26, 2020

Quote of the Day (Jack Germond, on the Outsized Importance of a Debate Gaffe)

“[A] single stumble may cost the election. Spend hundreds of millions; talk endlessly about issues; present 12-point plans for education, the economy, and the environment. But in the end, the election of our next president can turn on a gaffe.”—American political reporter and pundit Jack Germond (1928-2013), I Can’t Believe He Said That,” The Washingtonian, September 2007

Whatever justification Presidential debates may have had in the past, they possess precious little in 2020. The President has been in office for four years, with a record readily apparent, for better or worse. His opponent was a U.S. Senator or Vice-President for more than four decades. Voters have had plenty of time to know their positions and accomplishments by now, and if they don’t, shame on them.

Equally important, the type of gaffes that Germond examined in his essay were, in the grand scheme of things, trivial. Past brain-freeze responses to the fate of Communist-dominated Poland, a President’s invocation of a young daughter in discussing nuclear arms, or massive sighs and eye-rolls should have mattered little when it came to assessing who would lead our country.

Moreover, candidates’ opportunities to avoid answering questions and introduce their own factual distortions with inadequate chance for rebuttal are likely to rise markedly with the first debate this Tuesday and continuing into the final two. One candidate has a habit of exaggeration that he finds difficult to resist. The other purveys staggering falsehoods with virtually every breath he takes. Some reporters will not be inclined to note these, while others will simply throw their hands up at the unending task this involves.

Presidential debates offer the kind of theater that ratings-hungry news organizations crave, but this year especially, it threatens to degenerate into the worst combination of reality show and carnival act. It is time for the media to rethink their commitment to it.

(Two generations have passed since the event captured in the attached image, so, for any younger readers, this picture shows incumbent President Jimmy Carter and challenger Ronald Reagan in one of their 1980 debates.)

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