Derailing the debate

December 12, 2003|By Jules Witcover

DURHAM, N.H. - Thanks a lot, Ted Koppel, for the worst presidential nomination debate yet.

The way the ABC celebrity newsman moderated the affair among the nine Democratic presidential candidates here the other night confirmed often-heard public complaints that the news media, and especially television, have grown too big for their boots.

Mr. Koppel's opening gambit of calling on all the candidates who thought former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean could beat President Bush next year to raise their hands immediately set a destructive tone for what was supposed to be an exploration of the issues facing the country.

When only Dr. Dean reached half-heartedly for the sky, the 90-minute farce started on a downhill slide from which it never recovered. Mr. Koppel kept pushing it down with questions about former Vice President Al Gore's surprise endorsement of Dr. Dean, practically turning the affair into a Dean commercial.

One of the longest-shot candidates in the field, Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, blew the whistle on Mr. Koppel.

"To begin this kind of a forum with a question about an endorsement, no matter by who, I think actually trivializes the issues that are before us," he said, mentioning the war in Iraq he vehemently opposes.

But Mr. Koppel was not deterred. He went on, talking about Dr. Dean's fund-raising prowess and lead in the polls and asking Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, who trails Dr. Dean here in New Hampshire, whether there was "anything to be learned" from Dr. Dean's campaign success.

Mr. Kerry shot back: "Well, Ted, I'll tell you, there's something to be learned from your question. And if I were an impolite person, I'd tell you where to take your polls." Whereupon the debate audience applauded.

The ABC News star, with rare impertinence even for him, asked five of the other candidates why they were faring so poorly, and when three of them - Mr. Kucinich, the Rev. Al Sharpton and former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois - would be dropping out of the race.

Mr. Kucinich stepped up to the plate again. "When I take the oath of office, when you're there to cover it," he replied, as the audience cheered him on. "I want the American people to see where the media takes politics in this country. ... We start talking about endorsements, now we're talking about money. Well, you know, when you do that, you don't have to talk about what's important to the American people."

After the debate, Mr. Koppel's performance was as much a topic as what the candidates had to say. "Poor Mr. Koppel took a few hits tonight," said George Bruno, a former New Hampshire Democratic chairman who is the state co-chairman for retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark.

"It was a lesson for the media not to focus so much on the horse race when people are hungry to hear all the issues," Mr. Bruno said. "Time is so short [until the Jan. 27 New Hampshire primary]. Endorsements, money and polls are not what the campaign is about."

Another aide to Mr. Clark put it more pointedly, if anonymously: "I think the big loser tonight was Ted Koppel. He was short on substance and short on class. It was an ad for Howard Dean and a negative ad for the Republican National Committee by repeatedly advertising all the flaws of the candidates."

Steve Elmendorf, a chief strategist and aide to Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, said: "Koppel asking all those process questions? I've never seen anything like it."

And Kathy Sullivan, the state party chairman, pronounced the moderator's performance "terrible."

Once again, but more emphatically this time, the case was made for letting the candidates in such debates exchange views in a freewheeling way, with a moderator functioning strictly as a timekeeper and referee, not as a self-important provocateur.

There was a time when news folk were supposed to keep themselves out of the story.

As an embarrassed member of the news fraternity, all I can say is: Thanks again, Ted. We needed that - like a hole in the head.

Jules Witcover generally writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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