- The Washington Times - Friday, October 6, 2000

Jim Lehrer has Al Gore's permission to get tough in next week's second presidential debate.

No more softballs (not even softballs of color). Al regrets (he says) that Jim Lehrer didn't "act black," posing questions pertinent to black voters the way Bernard Shaw of CNN would.

In the mouth of anyone else, this would be the worst kind of racial profiling, but we have to forgive Al. The only blacks he knew growing up were the bellhops at the Fairfax Hotel who met his limousine when he arrived home from the cricket match at St. Albans, waiting to carry his books upstairs.

Al has a famously tin ear on race. His Secret Service bodyguards say he's not comfortable around blacks. Rep. Cynthia McKinney of Georgia, a black woman, tried to bring this up, too, until she was told to sit down. "Shut up," the Democratic Party elders advised.

Al's first real job was as a reporter at the Nashville Tennessean, in the era when Southern newspapers relegated "black news" to back pages, invariably captioned "News of Our Colored Friends." Most of those of us who grew up in the South of that era have tried to outgrow the tin ear, but Al, alas, never did.

He got it wrong about Bernie Shaw, who is a reporter, not a "black reporter." If he were a piano player Bernie would play on the white keys as well as the black. You could ask Mike Dukakis, who blew his chances in 1988 when Bernie asked him what would he do if someone raped his wife and the little Duke, instead of saying he would reach for his shotgun and organize a posse, talked about appointing a task force to study the causes of childhood poverty.

Mr. Lehrer is the interlocutor everybody likes. On his "News Hour," the policy wonks get enough uninterrupted air time to put whole cities and entire states to sleep, ad infinitum, ad nauseam and sometimes even ad valorem. That's why both sides were pleased to have Jim moderate the debates, which are after all organized by superannuated chairmen of both major parties. Neither side wants its man to have to look at hardballs, thrown fast, high and inside.

What we need are interlocutors who are willing to be seen as mean, who don't aspire to being admired by "good people." Robert Novak ("the prince of darkness") and Sam Donaldson ("darkness") come to mind. Others do, too. Guys with an instinct for the jugular: Tim Russert and Fred Barnes. Gals with attitude: Kate O'Bierne and Eleanor Clift. Why restrict it to a press gang: Barney Frank and Tom DeLay. William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal would draw like flies on watermelon.

Any of these worthies would keep everyone awake, which is why we'll never see them ask the questions. In the interests of making the next debates slightly less soporific than the debate just past, here are a few suggestions for Bernie Shaw, short of Al's "black questions":

A question for George W.: "You suggested last week that once Slobodan Milosevic was thrown out, it would be 'a wonderful time' for the Russians to 'step up and lead as well.' Why, given the way the Russians squandered the opportunity to transform their own system, do you think the Russians would help in the Balkans?"

A question for Al: "You and your running mate, Joe Lieberman, have said a lot of God talk on the stump this fall, and you have lectured audiences on the need for men and women of good will to spurn silent acquiescence and publicly rebuke those who tell racist and religious jokes. Why, then, did you and Joe sit by in silent acquiescence at a Hollywood fund-raiser when one of your biggest contributors told a tasteless joke about Governor Bush's faith, with Jesus Christ as the butt of it?"

A question for George W.: "You and Dick Cheney have properly challenged the Clinton-Gore administration for 'hollowing out' the U.S. military, calling attention to low morale and an inability to fight wars on two fronts, as the nation has been called on to do in the past, and yet you declared last week that 'our military is the strongest, best trained, best equipped, best-led fighting force in the history of the world, and nobody should have any doubt of that.' Why?"

A local question for both: "The Secret Service, against the protests of nearly everyone, has closed Pennsylvania Avenue and made it a parking lot for its agents and loudly resists attempts to reopen it as the grand avenue it was intended to be. Will you insist on reopening it, perhaps inviting the British or the Israelis to retrain our Secret Service in modern and less intrusive methods of protecting the head of state, or, if the Secret Service says it can't handle the job, reassign this responsibility to the FBI?"

No black coffee needed.

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