Clinton-Dole debate was civil instead of snarling

March 10, 2003|By Kevin Cowherd

LET'S GET this out of the way for the raw-meat and testosterone crowd that was waiting to see if any chairs were thrown in last night's 60 Minutes face-off between Bill Clinton and Bob Dole.

Nope, it was all very polite.

There was no ranting and raving. There was no finger-pointing. Why, neither man so much as cut the other off in mid-sentence, never mind stalked off the set.

Jerry Springer, this wasn't.

Actually, the best word to describe what this was is ... boring.

In fact, if this first revival of the old "Point/Counterpoint" debate between the ex-president and former Senate majority leader is any indication, we may need to hold a mirror under each man's nose to see if he's still breathing.

I've seen storefront mannequins show more emotion than Clinton and Dole.

(Memo to the 60 Minutes show-prep people: Think about easing up with the pancake makeup on these two. Clinton looked like Zsa Zsa Gabor. And Dole, he looked like he'd just come from doing kabuki.)

OK, fine, the debate topic itself was not the sexiest: Should there be tax cuts before a war?

Clinton, the dyed-in-the-wool lib, said no, a war with Iraq "will cost many millions" of dollars, "there has never been a tax cut in times of crisis" and blah, blah, blah ...

Dole, the die-hard conservative, said "this is a different kind of war" and that Americans want the "freedom to take our own money, instead of Washington taking it from us" and yadda, yadda, yadda ...

The point is, if you missed it, you didn't miss much. And this is scheduled to last for 10 weeks.

In the days leading up to the debate, both men had taken great pains to show they're pals, buddies, a couple of regular Joes enjoying each other's company now that their bitter 1996 presidential race is behind them.

Why, I wouldn't be surprised if they left CBS' studios after the taping and headed off together on a fishing trip to Florida or a golf vacation in California, or wherever a couple of well-heeled ex-pols go to unwind.

"It's not going to be a screaming match," Dole, the former Pepsi and Viagra pitchman, said of his 60 Minutes gig late last week. "We`re not going to get a hatchet out and beat each other up. It'll be provocative."

Whoa, not so fast, Senator.

Provocative this wasn't.

In fact, you wished it was one-tenth as provocative as the skit on Saturday Night Live a night earlier, where Dan Aykroyd and Darrell Hammond did a hilarious send-up of the new 60 Minutes debaters.

Hammond, as a smarmy, self-righteous, lip-biting Clinton, went on and on about how world leaders keep asking him "What the hell is going on in your country?" and clamoring for him to run for the presidency again.

Aykroyd, as the ever-cranky Dole -- a Dole possibly, um, energized by those little blue pills he pushes -- fired back with the predictable opener: "Bill, you ignorant slut!"

The line, of course, harkened back to the early days of SNL, when Aykroyd and Jane Curtin spoofed the 60 Minutes face-offs between Shana Alexander and James Kilpatrick.

And, just as predictably, it brought down the house -- or at least the raucous SNL studio audience, which has seemed increasingly liquored up in recent years and willing to laugh at just about anything.

But the bit, unlike so much recent SNL fare, was truly funny.

"Saddam Hussein is a boil and we're gonna lance him!" Aykroyd continued in Dole's trademark growl. ". . . so why don't you and your little European friends run along" and let the grown-ups handle the coming war.

This was followed by a Dole threat to "beat Hillary like a rented mule" for embarrassing Elizabeth Dole, the new Republican senator from North Carolina.

Oh, it was dead-on satire, wickedly pointed and, it says here, "must-see TV."

Unlike the real debate last night, which was more like "must-sleep TV."

The thing is, in striving for civility and decorum, 60 Minutes drained all the color and passion out of Clinton and Dole.

Asking Clinton, a world-class windbag, to confine his remarks to a 45-second sound bite on national TV is like asking Barry Bonds to lay down a bunt with the bases loaded in the World Series.

And Dole . . . well, you just know Dole would like nothing better than to rip off that muzzle and tear into Clinton.

Dole can be meaner than a wolverine when attacking an opponent. And when he is, he's as funny, thoughtful and, yes, provocative as anyone around.

Last night, though, 60 Minutes viewers got the kinder, gentler version of both men.

And that had this viewer dozing off.

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