The Smooth Talker Ducks Hard Questions

Has George W. Bush bottomed out, and is he starting to come back? There is reason to think so, and not only because every newspaper in America has “Bush Done For—GOP Panics” stories on the front page which, considering your usual journalistic time lag, suggests his comeback is well under way. Mr. Bush’s campaign this week took on an urgency, with substantive proposals on Medicare and education, and an aggressive look at Al Gore’s programs. And the debate debate, which looked flaky at first, seems to deserve greater scrutiny, and bears the potential for dividends.

I think this because I’ve been reading transcripts of “Meet the Press.”

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Mr. Bush agreed to debate Mr. Gore in a prime-time version of NBC’s “Meet the Press,” hosted by Tim Russert, because he had to make a virtue of necessity. Mr. Gore is a gifted debater—disciplined, seasoned by four national political cycles, possessed of a killer’s instincts. Mr. Bush is not a great debater. He hasn’t even shown himself to be a good debater. In the primary debates he looked like he was sliding down in his chair so teacher wouldn’t notice him. And when he tried to speak candidly, saying for instance that Jesus was his favorite philosopher, he couldn’t explain why except to assert that Christ had changed his heart, which seemed both believable and inadequate.

So Mr. Bush is bad at debate and Mr. Gore is good, but the latter has reason to fear a grilling from a persistent questioner and the former doesn’t. Mr. Gore wants to debate but not to be interviewed, and Mr. Bush wants to be interviewed but not to debate. The brilliant answer: have a “debate” in which Mr. Russert, who has his own killer instincts, asks questions. That way Mr. Gore, who has the talent to dominate, will not be allowed to. It won’t be Big Al versus the Shrub. It would be a moderator with two equals.

Mr. Gore had clearly agreed to this format and venue. In an interview with Mr. Russert on July 16, he even pushed for the CEO of General Electric, which owns NBC, to get Mr. Bush to agree:

Mr. Gore: I’ve accepted for two or three months now your invitation to debate on this program. Have you gotten a yes from Gov. Bush yet?

Mr. Russert: His campaign says he will debate you, and the request is under active consideration . . .

Mr. Gore: “Well, how are you going to persuade him to say yes, Tim?”

Mr. Russert: “Well, maybe you’re helping today.”

Mr. Gore: “Well, do you think so? But what kind of approach—can you get Jack Welch involved?”

But when Mr. Bush accepted the debate this week, Mr. Gore suddenly refused to take part. The media are letting him get away with it for several reasons, including (a) the other broadcast-network shows failed to get the debate and are not happy, and (b) the debate would be good for a competitor, and helping Tim Russert isn’t their job. It isn’t mine either, but getting both candidates in a setting in which they will reveal things about themselves, their history and their thinking is.

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In the 40 years since John F. Kennedy debated Richard Nixon, presidential debates have declined as venues in which revelation and insight occur. They are now what was once said of flying—hours of boredom punctuated by a few seconds of sheer terror. (“Mr. President, are you saying that Poland is a free country?”) Modern debates consist of a 90-second sound bite in which one candidate asserts, followed by 60 seconds in which another rebuts, followed by 30 seconds of answer to the rebuttal. It is rote, ritualistic, unrevealing. It is perfectly suited to Al Gore, the human Conair 2000, who opens his mouth, flips the switch and blows, and who also wrote a college paper on how presidential news conferences can be handled through prefab sound bites.

But what has frozen and hardened in these debates could be broken up and made fluid again by the presence of a seasoned interviewer. Mr. Bush thinks Mr. Russert is tough but fair; Mr. Gore thinks Mr. Russert is—well, he thinks he’s the man who put him through this:

Mr. Russert: “I want to ask you a very simple question. Do you believe that life begins at conception?”

Mr. Gore: “No. I believe there is a difference. You know, I believe that the Roe v. Wade decision wisely embodies the kind of common-sense judgment that most Americans share.”

Mr. Russert then showed a letter Mr. Gore had written in 1987, in which he said he consistently opposed federal funding of abortions because government shouldn’t take part in “the taking of what is arguably a human life.” Mr. Gore answered that he had changed his mind on that “10, 15 years ago.”

Mr. Russert: “But you did vote to define a person as including an unborn child.” Mr. Gore said it was a “procedural vote.”

Mr. Russert: “When do you think life begins?”

Mr. Gore: “I favor the Roe v. Wade approach, but let me just say, Tim, I did—”

Mr. Russert: “Which is what? When does life begin?”

Mr. Gore did not answer, but referred instead to changing his position on federal funding of abortions. The interviewer pressed again.

Mr. Russert: “But you were calling fetuses innocent human life, and now you don’t believe life begins at conception. I’m just trying to find out, when do you believe life begins?”

Mr. Gore replied that Roe v. Wade “proposes an answer to that question.” Asked what it is, he replied that there is “a developmental process during which the burden kind of shifts over time.” He vowed to protect “a woman’s right to choose.” Then Mr. Russert changed approach.

Mr. Russert: “Should there be a restriction on minors getting abortions without parental consent?”

Mr. Gore: “Difficult question, because there are all kind of circumstances where you have some children kind of raising themselves in situations where their families are fracturedÝ.Ý.Ý.”

He added that the decision needs to “be worked out in the context of a woman’s right to choose.”

Mr. Russert: “But a child needs permission to have her ears pieced.”

Mr. Gore: “I understand.”

Mr. Russert: “You don’t want parental permission for an abortion.”

Mr. Gore said some proposals on this “have been a backdoor effort to eliminate a woman’s right to choose.” Mr. Russert asked why not support parental notification in which a judge could intervene in the kind of cases he refers to. Mr. Gore said, “Well, I’d want to look at that.” So Mr. Russert changed approach again.

Mr. Russert: “Right now there’s legislation which says that a woman on death row—if she’s pregnant, she should not be executed. Do you support that?”

Mr. Gore: “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Mr. Russert: “It’s a federal statute . . . that if a woman is pregnant and she’s on death row, she should not be executed.”

Mr. Gore: “Well, I don’t know what the circumstances would be in that situation. I would—you know, it’s an interesting fact situation. I’d want to think about it.”

It was stupendous, an hour of relentless and informed questioning on Social Security, the surplus, tax policy, and whether the Boy Scouts should be allowed to exclude gay members (Mr. Gore couldn’t say). It was the most revealing presidential interview since Roger Mudd met Ted Kennedy in 1980 and showed us Mr. Kennedy’s utter inability to make a case for his own candidacy.

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Mr. Russert is becoming the first indispensable television journalist since Walter Cronkite. With his happy-killer mug, and his desire to bore in, he makes you think of what was said of Lenin: “He could exhaust you by listening.” (Idiotic but defensively necessary note: I worked for MSNBC, which is part of NBC, during the political conventions this year; I also did a half-hour interview with Mr. Russert when my book on Hillary Clinton came out, and emerged exhausted though not horrified.)

Mr. Gore has his reasons for not wanting to be subjected to another grilling; but the public might benefit greatly from it, as it would be what we want all such events to be: revealing.

Mr. Bush, at this point, should speak frankly of his underdog status in whatever debates finally occur. He should start making jokes about it, too, and making people laugh at the difference between his lack of gifts in that area and Mr. Gore’s abundance of them. He might even come right out and declare Gore the winner going in. Mr. Bush should also explain frankly how you can be both best candidate and worst debater, the right man with the right ideas and the lesser talent for asserting them.

Which brings us to the old empty-chair gambit. Mr. Bush says he’ll show up at the debate time with an empty chair, put it down on the sidewalk and offer to debate. Some joker has already answered, “Watch out, the chair will win!” That is one great line, but it begs for a comeback, and perhaps if Mr. Bush meets with the press for an hour or two that night and takes all questions, the comeback will be his.