- The Washington Times - Friday, April 18, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Americans who took time out from their busy schedules Wednesday night to watch the so-called debate on ABC News deserve a gold medal because as Yogi Berra said, “You can observe a lot by just watching.”

What did voters learn? Not much more about Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama but more than expected about the two moderators, Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulos (the latter a former Clinton insider and White House spokesman).

Even professionals who get paid to “observe a lot by just watching” were disappointed. (I was so turned off by the questioning in the first several minutes that I hit the remote to watch the NBA’s regular-season finales.)

Most commentators expected a higher quality debate. An exception was David Brooks’ reflections in the New York Times. “I thought the questions were excellent,” he wrote, and the gave the moderators an “A.”

Others weren’t so generous. Salon’s Walter Shapiro pointed out that “devoid of a single policy question during its opening 50 minutes, the debate easily could have convinced the uninitiated that American politics has all the substance of a Beavis and Butt-Head marathon.” The Washington Post’s TV critic, Tom Shales, said Mr. Stephanopoulos and Mr. Gibson “turned in shoddy, despicable performances.”

There were stupid questions about flag pins and whether Mr. Obama considers the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the former pastor of his church, to be as patriotic as the senator himself is. (Yawn.) Mr. Stephanopoulos even asked each candidate whether he or she thought the other could beat Republican John McCain in the general election. Mrs. Clinton, in her response, sounded more like Meg Ryan’s character in “When Harry Met Sally” — saying, “Yes. Yes. Yes.” — than she did a fully grown politician running for the highest office in all the land.

Guess Bill’s admonishments to lay off Hillary got to the moderators.

One of the best bloggers and prowlers of the Web, Richard Prince, (www.maynardije.org/columns/dickprince/080416_prince/), reported this: “On MSNBC, host Keith Olbermann said conservative radio host Sean Hannity fed Stephanopoulos questions for Obama about his relationship with former Weather Underground member William Ayers. The Web site Think Progress provided audio of the conversation between Stephanopoulos and Hannity on Hannity’s radio show.”

Baby Boomers who still have a full head of ungraying hair know who Bill Ayers is. Mr. Ayers was a member of the U.S. terror organization Weather Underground; but he was never convicted. He now, instead of his ‘60s radical rage and rags, wears the title “distinguished professor of education,” so anointed by the University of Illinois. Fate acquainted Mr. Obama and Mr. Ayers years ago.

Oh, and that’s right. Hillary’s Chicago roots aren’t shallow, either. But who could tell by the moderators?

Instead of questions that led to “Yes. Yes. Yes.” answers, Mr. Stephanopoulos and Mr. Gibson, if they truly wanted to run a more fair and balanced theme of who-do-you-know and what’s-your-relationship-to-them, should have let loose far more probing inquiries.

A couple of questions for Mrs. Clinton that Dick Morris, another former Clinton insider, offered the media last fall.

n “After all the bad experiences you had with Johnnie Chung and Charlie Trie and their campaign donations in the 1996 cycle, why were you not more careful in vetting the donations generated by Norman Hsu. Didn’t you learn your lesson in 1996?”

n Norman Hsu was no ordinary donor. He was the biggest bundler in your campaign; he gave funds to the Clinton Global Initiative and the Clinton School of Government in Arkansas. … In view of his high profile in your campaign why didn’t you check him out more thoroughly and what does this say about your ability to make quality appointments?”

Hsu is a man troubled by his own hands. By all accounts he is a fraud. A convicted felon and fugitive from justice last year, when American voters learned that the Clintons’ “old friend Norman” (as Bill calls him) was at it again, facing charges of a Ponzi scheme.

But why wasn’t a public inquiry carried out in the debate in Philadelphia? After all, the governor of Pennsylvania, Ed Rendell, is a big-time Clinton supporter who referred to Hsu as “one of the best 10 people I’ve met.”

Pennsylvanians will be hitting the polls on Tuesday amid hopes that the Keystone state will weigh heavily in favor of one Democrat or the other so that only two pols — one Republican, one Democrat — remain in the runups to the summer conventions.

But then again, tilting at windmills, not deeply probing Mrs. Clinton, for an hour or so was the name of the game.

The early rounds of the debate were disappointing because, in fact, neither moderator took American voters where they deserved to go. By just watching, voters could have learned the who, what, where and how of the potential presidencies of Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama. Instead, ABC took voters to… well… a time “When Harry Met Sally” and a make-believe place where Beavis and Butt-Head actually agree to disagree.

As Yogi said, “You got to be careful if you don’t know where you’re going, because you might not get there.”

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