Horrors! The President Is Playing Politics!

RICHARD REEVES

September 22, 1992|By RICHARD REEVES

LOS ANGELES — Los Angeles.--Theodore Roosevelt said this, and every president since him has repeated or believed it:

''It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles. . . . The credit belongs to the man in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood . . . who at the best knows in the end the triumphs of high achievement and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.''

''The man who fights the bull . . . '' was John F. Kennedy's variation on the theme.

With the same degree of hyperbole, I would defend to the death President Bush's decision to reject the debate ultimatums of the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates and other groupings of has-beens and wannabes. He's the man in the arena -- and if he wants to face the challenging young bull named Clinton only under the old rules, then so be it.

And if the bull doesn't like that, at least in this sport, I will also defend Mr. Clinton's decision to tell the spectators to stuff it.

It is a mystery to me why all the right people, led by the New York Times editorial page, believe that the president or any other candidate has to do things their way or not at all. I also am not sure the format the good people champion, just a moderator and the two candidates, is necessarily better than the old format with a panel of reporters asking the questions.

''Noble purpose has been frustrated by a stodgy, stylized format,'' harrumphs the Times. ''A pompous panel of interrogators asks random questions that are rarely followed. As the questions zig and zag, so do the candidates.''

Well! Pardon me.

The fact of the matter is that these guys, Messrs. Bush and Clinton, and the presidential candidates before them, are professionals who go in any direction they please with the sacred and the scurrilous of public policy and political posturing. I don't imagine that changing the number of questioners or promoting confrontation will change that.

No, no, no, I keep hearing. Don't you realize President Bush is manipulating the system?

C'mon. I should hope so; it's his life. And I trust Governor Clinton is, too. This is not exactly an all-powerful and political president denying voice to an underfinanced and undercovered opponent. Has anybody noticed that Mr. Clinton is clobbering the president? It's President Bush, the incumbent, who needs the debate this time.

I don't know what's on Mr. Bush's mind, but I must say that I have rarely known a candidate who has gotten so far doing so badly in debates and joint appearances. He looked like the winner in the Republican primaries in 1980 until Ronald Reagan knocked him out with one line in a New Hampshire debate: ''Mr. Green, I paid for this microphone!'' -- which turned out to be a Spencer Tracy line in a 1940s movie called ''State of the Union.''

Four years later, in the vice-presidential debate, he was beaten, I thought, by Geraldine Ferraro -- a defeat he made worse by walking off and saying he had kicked a little tail. Even Michael Dukakis seemed to be giving Mr. Bush as much as he got in the 1988 debates until a reporter, Bernard Shaw, asked the Democrat what he would do if his wife were raped.

The people who think the candidates will really take off after each other if they go mano-a-mano -- lighting up the sky with substance -- might be in for a real disappointment if they get their way. Part of the art of television debating is to come across as a nice guy -- a lesson Bob Dole learned the hard way in 1976 when he got too bitter and nasty in the vice-presidential debate against Walter Mondale -- and that argues against asking mean questions or getting too tough with the other guy.

I, for one, don't think the reporter-driven debates have been so pompous, etc. John Kennedy looked good to America in one, and Dan Quayle proved that he was no Jack Kennedy in another. Voters seem to get the idea about these people -- no matter who asks the questions. It is the answers that matter, and they have generally been revealing as to how much a candidate knows and how he thinks.

I don't doubt great head-to-head debates are possible. Actually, I've seen one, where the president and his challenger waved away the television anchorperson and went at each other with detailed descriptions of what they believed in and what they didn't, and then went on with what was wrong with the thinking of their opponent. That was ''Le Duel'' in France in 1987. The president's name was Francois Mitterrand and his opponent was Jacques Chirac.

But Messrs. Mitterrand and Chirac represented directly opposed ideologies in a country where basic political arguments about the role of government are handed down from generation to generation. We don't really have those kinds of schisms and traditions. What we've got here are a couple of bright and ambitious politicians trying to get through the next seven weeks.

Besides, I draw the line at Mr. Bush or Mr. Clinton demanding that the debate be in a language neither of them speaks. Other than that, I think the two of them, or their representatives in negotiation, should agree on the rules of the game -- with or without the help of well-intentioned commissions and newspapers. No matter what the rules, if the two of them stand up there together for an hour and a half or two hours, the American people are perfectly capable of telling which one is which and choosing between them.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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