TV debate was a waste of one good Friday night

October 25, 1998|By MICHAEL OLESKER

FOR THIS, WE gave up a Friday night? To watch Parris Glendening and Ellen Sauerbrey stand there like a couple of earnest grad students who have overprepped for their orals and can't get out of their own way?

Talk about locked into a message: Glendening, asked about switching signals on Bill Clinton, responds by talking about handguns and poultry dealers dumping animal waste into the Chesapeake. (Pretty good subjects, but completely missing the implied issue: the governor's tendency to confuse politics and principle.)

Talk about overprogrammed: Glendening, ticking off his accomplishments -- more jobs, less crime, everybody knows the list by now -- finishes his opening statement by asking, "Why would we change?" And Sauerbrey responds by congratulating the Lady Terps. Which Lady Terps? Who cares? Any will do. Some genius adviser told Sauerbrey to point out her gender, and to show she's in favor of the Youth of America. So she slipped it in at the first opportunity, in case we assumed she didn't like young people.

But she didn't seize that moment to answer the best question of the evening, inadvertently handed to her by her opponent: Why should we change? And, not only that: Why does this Democratic incumbent, in a heavily Democratic state doing rather nicely with him at the helm, find himself in such big political trouble?

"Parris Glendening is shameless," Sauerbrey said.

Well, yeah. But it's a big club, and Sauerbrey's also a member. Just as Glendening's hurting because of his pension scheme, his campaign finance grabs, his Prince George's County budget legacy and his double-dealing on gambling, Sauerbrey's scrambling to deny an indelible history of right-wing votes on guns, on abortion, on the environment, and on years of trying to cut government spending of all kinds, including money for schools, which she now announces grandly that she wishes to assist.

Maybe that's why both candidates seemed to have so much trouble with their eyes Friday night. Sometimes they looked at the audience gathered there in College Park. Sometimes they looked directly at their questioners.

But those people mean nothing. We're talking arithmetic, not personality. The important numbers were out there on the other side of the television cameras, into which Glendening and Sauerbrey almost never looked. Surely, in our time of great electronic-media sages, somebody must have told these gumps about looking into the camera.

But they didn't. And it could have seemed, to the professional cynic we've each become, that we were watching two people who couldn't make eye contact with us -- because they knew they weren't telling us entire truths.

These were two politicians trying to brush past their histories. For example, Glendening quoted Sauerbrey as saying in a fund-raising speech to Virginia conservatives when she thought

nobody around here would find out: "Taxes are for the lazy and the immoral."

"I passed some police on the way in here tonight," Glendening said, "and they're not lazy or immoral." Then he mentioned firefighters who are paid with tax dollars, "and 275,000 public employees and senior citizens. They're not lazy or immoral."

Sauerbrey responded, "[Glendening] knows that's not true" -- that she wasn't intending to call those people lazy or immoral. And she's right. Nobody would be stupid enough to imply such a thing, and Glendening is clumsy and misguided to float such an interpretation.

But Sauerbrey's not squaring with us, either. By equating tax dollars with "the lazy and the immoral," she was going for that old, divisive pitch about welfare cheats, about single mothers, about those who would allegedly rather take a government handout than earn a legitimate paycheck. All this from a woman who now keeps talking of "bringing people together."

The "tax" talk is an old argument, and carries with it much whispered baggage about race and class -- and that's a debate that might have been worth hearing, because the issue of economic haves and have-nots, and government helping people trouble, is one that genuinely divides these two candidates.

Here's another divider: government helping rich people. Sauerbrey's made much of Glendening approving lottery money build ballparks.

"Let them build their own facilities," Sauerbrey said. She's right. But, also, she marks herself as utterly naive in saying so. Without building the Orioles a park, they're probably playing in Washington today. Without building the Ravens a park, they're still known as the Cleveland Browns.

Sauerbrey's right to disapprove of bankrolling ballclubs. But she's wrong to overlook the emotional adhesiveness they bring to a community, and wrong to keep saying Glendening built ballparks "instead of" schools. He put more than $600 million into schools.

His problem: A lot of voters don't give him credit for it. They keep thinking about his history of funny money. Just as they keep wondering about Sauerbrey's history of not-so-funny votes.

It's why some of us watched the debate, and noticed the dodging, and wondered: For this, we gave up a Friday night?

Pub Date: 10/25/98

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