Saturday, October 16, 2004


By William Fisher

Margaret Carlson of TIME magazine, who describes herself as “a product of the (Catholic) School of the Good Shepherd outside of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania”, writes in the Los Angeles Times that she finds it “jarring” that “the word ‘lesbian’ still leaps out in the middle of a presidential debate.”

It may be “jarring” to Ms. Carlson, but the more important point is that it is totally irrelevant to one’s choice for president.

Meanwhile, an editorial in the Raleigh (North Carolina) News and Observer congratulates Messrs. Bush and Kerry for giving the American people “a series of informative and energetic dialogues”. The paper concludes that “if all Americans were to case their votes for president based on what they had an opportunity to learn in the three presidential debates, that final choice would represent the consensus of an educated, enlightened electorate – something that would be healthy, indeed.”

Allow me to demur. The exquisitely negotiated minuet as to format and ground rules for these debates virtually guaranteed the triumph of sound bites over substance. These ensured that voters would never hear enough about any single issue to be even minimally informed.

Worse, in two of the three debates, the questions put to the candidates were written by the debate moderators. In the middle debate, the so-called Town Hall format, voters submitted the questions and the moderators selected which ones to ask.

So, while we now know what the moderators think is important, the debates and the debaters remained silent on some of the most important issues facing the US. One such issue is the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, only briefly mentioned in passing; a second is Abu Ghraib and related prisoner abuses issues – not mentioned at all; a third is reform of our intelligence community, counter-terrorism policy, homeland security and the impact of these issues on American civil liberties.

John Kerry well knows – and has said so on other occasions – that the road to peace in the Middle East runs not through Baghdad but through Jerusalem. It can only be viewed as a lesson in Pandering 101 that he never mentioned – and the president never had to defend -- his outrageous and unproductive positions on this issue. The President needed to be held accountable for abdicating responsibility for addressing this issue with energy, consistency and imagination, and personal involvement. And candidate Kerry failed to do so.

Mr. Kerry also failed to mention the prisoner abuse scandal and the role it has played in the collapse of American credibility around the world. He knows that, contrary to the President’s unconscionable spin on this issue, these bestial acts were far from the work of ‘a few bad apples’. He knows that the CIA is being investigated for, as a Washington Post editorial put it, “introducing abusive interrogation techniques into Iraq and illegally hiding prisoners from the International Red Cross.” He knows that a major Pentagon investigation of how US interrogation policies spread through Afghanistan and Iraq was to be released by the end of September, but has yet to appear. And he knows that a panel appointed by the Pentagon found responsibility for prisoner abuse at senior levels of the Pentagon, the Justice Department and the White House, and that no one in the Bush Administration has yet been held accountable.

In the final debate, Mr. Kerry excoriated the president for failing to inspect 95% of the millions of freight containers that enter US ports each year, and for inspecting airline luggage but not airfreight. But he left unaddressed the issues of a gigantic, under-funded mega-bureaucracy known as the Department of Homeland Security; an intelligence community whose long-overdue reform was initially opposed by the president; a Justice Department that took 5,000 people into custody and convicted no one; and a truly sinister piece of legislation passed by the House of Representatives that would facilitate even more secretive detentions and deportations – including deportations of asylum-seekers to countries where they would likely face torture. If less draconian and more effective legislation is to emerge, the thanks will go not to Senator Kerry, or to the president, but to the 9/11 Commission and to the boundless energy and determination of the 9/11 survivors’ families.

That the candidates shared the same stage was good. That what we saw and heard could be called ‘debates’ is arguable. That the result was likely to produce anything like “an educated, enlightened electorate” is delusional.