- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 1, 2000

No matter who "wins" Tuesday's face-off at the John F. Kennedy Library between Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore, the American people will be the losers. That's because the "sponsors" of the event, the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) failed to heed the words of the man for whom the building is named. In 1959, in a speech to the National Civil Liberties Conference, John Kennedy said, "Let us not be afraid of debate or discussion let us encourage it."

That little maxim apparently escaped the attention of Messrs. Frank Fahrenkopf and Paul Kirk, the co-chairmen of the "nonpartisan" Commission on Presidential Debates, when they decided to exclude Reform Party nominee Patrick J. Buchanan, Green Party nominee Ralph Nader and Libertarian candidate Harry Browne from their little shindig in Boston.

Interestingly, the CPD announced its determination on Sept. 26, the 40th anniversary of the very first televised debate between Vice President Richard M. Nixon and Sen. John F. Kennedy. By excluding Messrs. Buchanan, Browne and Nader, the CPD invites criticism that these debates are of, by and for the elites and practically guarantees that fewer people will watch the candidates than tuned in to watch Paraguay and Mozambique compete in the Olympic trampoline finals.

Given the appalling lack of engagement by Americans eligible to participate in our electoral process, the CPD should have paid more attention to their own mission, "to ensure that debates, as a permanent part of every general election, provide the best possible information to viewers and listeners." They might also have looked back at the short history of these events and figured out that when debates include third-party candidates, more people pay attention. But instead, the former chairmen of the Republican and Democratic parties who run the CPD, set out to ensure that no outsiders need apply.

In 1992, when the debates included Ross Perot, Bill Clinton and George Bush, an average of 90 million Americans were turned on and tuned in, and the number of viewers increased with each successive debate. But in 1996, the Republicans and Democrats colluded with the CPD to keep the debates a two-party affair for a paltry 42 million average viewers and the number dropped in each successive broadcast so that by the third debate only 36 million Americans were watching Bill Clinton "duke it out" with Bob Dole.

On Tuesday, NBC isn't going to wait for viewers to reach for their remotes. They're going to broadcast a Major League baseball playoff game. And FOX is going to bag the debates in their entirety. What do the geniuses of the CPD do for an encore if "Dark Angel" FOX's new sci-fi series beats Al and George in the ratings?

How did these nice folks at the CPD decide who's in an who's out? They say they followed their "established" criteria: First, a candidate must satisfy constitutional requirements. Second, a "debater" must appear on "enough state ballots to have at least a mathematical chance of securing an Electoral College majority in the 2000 general election." Fair enough, but the third requirement is the kicker: A candidate must "have a level of support of at least 15 percent of the national electorate as determined by five selected national public opinion polling organizations."

Under that scenario, Ross Perot and John Anderson would not have been permitted to participate in their respective presidential debates. And Jesse Ventura, who went on to become the governor of Minnesota, would not have been able to share his views with the public that eventually elected him.

Including Mr. Buchanan, Mr. Browne and Mr. Nader in the debates might or might not be in the best interest of the Republican and Democratic parties and my advocating their inclusion won't endear me to most of my friends in the GOP. But if broadening participation in the debates increases public participation in our political process that can only be good for America.

Instead of looking at these realities, the CPD acts like any other Washington bureaucracy and wastes good time and money issuing arcane instructions on everything from how big the debate site should be to the specifications for air conditioning that must "have the capability of achieving 68 degrees Fahrenheit for the house audience area and 65 degrees Fahrenheit for the on-stage area under the following conditions for both areas: 1,000 people or 250,000 Btu per hour, and a full lighting load or 2,000 watts or 6,280 Btu per hour." These guys could have written the tax code for the Internal Revenue Service.

But hope springs eternal. They could still open up the two remaining debates on Oct. 11 at Wake Forest University, and Oct. 17 in St. Louis to Mr. Buchanan, Mr. Browne and Mr. Nader. All it takes is that the CPD overcome its fear Americans might actually tune in and watch.

Oliver North is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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