- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 2, 2000

Every four years or so, a new idea emerges during the presidential debates. No, not from the candidates. Rather, it's from the television producers responsible for staging these events.
In 1992 and 1996, television producers dissatisfied perhaps with the questions that were being asked by "professionals" came up with a novel idea: Why don't we let ordinary folks ask the candidates the questions? Known derisively in some circles as the "Oprah format," it proved to be the downfall of President George Bush (who failed to "feel peoples' pain") and of Sen. Bob Dole (who never managed to emanate warmth in this setting).
It also allowed ordinary Americans to personalize every issue. "President Bush My father is suffering from whatever and it costs so much to take care of him. What will you do for me?" Every question under the Oprah format invariably boiled down to the same thing: "What will you do for me?" The Q & A more resembled a city councilman's town meeting than a format for presidential candidates to give their views on meatier issues like foreign affairs, defense, and federal budgetary matters.
Well now those same insightful TV producers have come up with another novel idea: Why don't we let the candidates just ask each other the questions? It'll be great TV. Imagine the fireworks.
Instead, however, this format just like the Oprah format has failed. And the reason it has failed is that none of the presidential candidates, including Vice President Gore, who spent a few years finding himself at The Tennesseean, is trained at asking questions.
Take last Wednesday's Republican debate in Manchester, N.H. Texas Gov. George W. Bush, during his Q & A time, asked this penetrating "question" of former Reagan official Alan Keyes: "Give us your thoughts about health care." Mr. Bush wasn't done giving Mr. Keyes the third degree. In a "follow-up," he also invited him to attack the current Democratic administration if he wished. Mr. Keyes gladly accepted the invitation. If you closed your eyes, you might think you were listening to "Saturday Night Live's" "Linda Richman Show": "The Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire. Discuss."
Mr. Keyes was later the recipient of a "hardball" question from his fellow conservative activist, Gary Bauer. Mr. Bauer attacked Mr. Keyes for diving into a mosh pit while music by the group Rage Against the Machine was playing music, Mr. Bauer said, that "the killers at Columbine" loved. This line of attack by Mr. Bauer was perhaps the only time in his life he has used the words "mosh" and "pit" in the same sentence. It also appeared to be a forced argument. Interaction and questioning between candidates happens naturally. If candidates are attacked, most will attack back (even Bill Bradley). And if a candidate says something that his opponent takes issue with, a good politician will call him or her on it. Remember "Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy"? Forcing an attack through this Q & A session, more often than not, looks strained.
The bottom line out of any debate should be for the voters to get a better understanding of the policy differences between the candidates. While the "candidates as journalists" format can work (and did in some of the Bradley-Gore face-offs), the 15 minutes devoted to this part of the debate has usually proved to be a major waste of time. By contrast, NBC's Tim Russert and CNN's Judy Woodruff two journalists familiar with the issues and the candidates' respective positions on them have done a commendable job of asking the right questions and following up where appropriate. They have also deftly managed to get the candidates to interact with each other.
As the campaign primary season progresses and preparations are made for the general election debates, special attention should be paid to the format upon which the debates will be based. The electorate is ill-served by the Oprah format and the candidate Q & A. Only a trained journalist (as opposed to the "gotcha" types who ask candidates pop quizzes) can force a presidential wannabe to answer the important questions.
Bring back the professionals. Otherwise, TV producers may come up with another "terrific" idea like bringing in Regis Philbin as a debate moderator. While some of the candidates it seems at times could use a such "lifeline," I don't think it's time just yet for Regis' signature line: "Is that your final answer?" On second thought, that may not be such a bad idea.

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