DEBATES probably don't affect the outcomes of elections...

October 31, 1994|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

DEBATES probably don't affect the outcomes of elections, so they ought to be entertaining. Some are, some aren't.

I watched two last week. Paul Sarbanes vs. Bill Brock on WMPT and Ted Kennedy vs. Mitt Romney on C-SPAN. The latter was more interesting by far.

For one thing, it was a surprise. For weeks Senator Kennedy has been ducking the confrontation, allegedly because he was old, fat and ugly, couldn't think on his feet, couldn't put together coherent statements. A 32-year veteran of the Senate, he was the perfect example of what the anti-incumbent, anti-Washington crowd loves to hate.

But Teddy fooled everybody. "This time 32 years of baggage carried the day," a Boston Globe columnist put it the next day.

Kennedy looked good, answered most questions with verve, and hit one out of the park. That was when Mitt Romney asked him about his profiting on a real estate deal with the government. Kennedy said, "Mr. Romney, the Kennedys are not in public service to make money. We have paid too high a price." Wild cheers and applause from the crowd in Faneuil Hall.

The reason Kennedy looked good was -- cosmetics! "The TV makeup suited him, camouflaging his nose bump and time tracks on his face," a Boston Herald critic wrote. Nice irony. John Kennedy benefited from Richard Nixon's poor makeup job in their first televised debate back in 1960 -- the contest that made televised debates more or less obligatory in campaigns today.

My favorite moment in the Kennedy-Romney debate was not an answer but a question. Sally Jacobs of the Globe asked, "Senator, what is your greatest personal failing, and how have you attempted to deal with it?" What a zinger! She obviously learned her journalism when she was growing up here, reading her dad Brad and his irreverent colleagues on The Evening Sun's editorial page.

As for the Sarbanes-Brock debate, Zzzzzzzzzzz. Brock looked and sounded like a guy who just got off his life support system and had to be back in the hospital for an operation in an hour. Sarbanes came across as a crazed anesthesiologist who couldn't wait to turn on the gas. The wrong gas.

The only memorable moment was Paul's angry insistence that he visited his mother in Salisbury "all the time" (in rebuttal to Bill's statement that he'd been there more often recently than Sarbanes).

It's not smart to bring someone's mother into a political race. Ann Richards found that out in Texas last week. She said if her son told untruths the way her opponent in the governor's race, George W. Bush, did, "I'd say shame on you, Dan." Campaigner Barbara Bush jumped on that: "She'd be lucky to have a son like George W."

George W. came up with the most memorable line of that race last week. In discussing taxes, he said, "Read my ears. There will not be a tax increase when I'm governor."

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