The Debate: Believe It or Not

During Sunday's presidential debate, Al Sharpton complained of not being able to finish a thought because the questioners seemed to want to listen to only John Kerry and John Edwards, and he got into it with Elizabeth Bumiller, who covers the Bush beat for The New York Times. "I'm not going to sit here and be window dressing," Sharpton told her, to which she replied, "Well, I'm not going to be addressed like this." To which he replied, "Well, then, let all of us speak."

A little later, Kerry told her, "You don't let us finish answering questions," to which she replied, "You're in New York."

You could have fooled me. I thought we were in Colorado Springs, headquarters of the Christian Right. Bumiller and Dan Rather acted as if they were popping up out of a crowd at James Dobson's Focus on the Family the way they grilled the candidates on "faith."

"This I believe ... ," Rather asked of the candidates right from the start, wanting them to fill in the blank. The proper reply: "I believe you're a twit." Bumiller, whose "White House Letter" has already earned her a letter in presidential husbandry, hounded Kerry with the grossly provincial and simplistic "Are you a liberal? Are you a liberal?" She should have read more Daniel Boorstin, whom the Times eulogized this morning while noting the conservative historian's contempt for televised debates. Her own paper noted that Boorstin said such debates as the Nixon-Kennedy encounters in 1960, in the paper's words, "reduced national issues to trivial theatrics."

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Rather proved it with this question to Sharpton: "Do you consider Senator Kerry a liberal by your definition?" Sharpton, as usual, was the sharpest wit in the field, answering Rather with this: "No, I think that anyone—if you want to use George Bush as the definition of conservative, most of America is liberal now, because most of America would vote against Bush." Sharpton cogently noted, "I remember when conservatives were respectable."

The third questioner, Andrew Kirtzman of CBS 2, got the scoop of the campaign: Edwards is incredibly rich! "Senator Edwards," Kirtzman said, "through the campaign, and again this morning, you have spoken very eloquently and movingly about the fight against the rich and powerful on behalf of the working class. And yet, you yourself are rich and powerful. You're worth upwards of $36 million. You have a $4 million house in Georgetown, a $1 million beach house in North Carolina, a $1 million home in Raleigh. Do you think your supporters know that you live this way?"

Wonder how Kirtzman would have grilled Franklin Delano Roosevelt back in 1932? Let's listen in: "Mr. Roosevelt, your family is quite wealthy. You've got the place in Hyde Park, you can afford special care for your polio. You've led a life in the upper crust, yet you speak of the poor and jobless?"

Jeez, Andy, being rich doesn't disqualify a person from running for the presidency. Poor people can be scumbags, rich people can be scumbags. Sometimes—shockingly—people rich or poor can do both good and bad things. Andrew Carnegie was a merciless steel baron, but he built free libraries all over America.

Kirtzman questioned the Democrats on this non-issue when George W. Bush is nothing but the spoiled scion of a family that has exhibited no sense of noblesse oblige? (If you're not up on the Bush family history, see Kevin Phillips's American Dynasty, and read Paul Krugman's devastating essay in the February 26 New York Review of Books.)

The low point in the debate came in the 11th hour, when Bumiller intoned, "Really fast, on a Sunday morning, President Bush has said that freedom and fear have always been at war, and God is not neutral between them. He's made quite clear in his speeches that he feels God is on America's side. Really quick, is God on America's side?" Pat Robertson could have—would have—asked the identical question.

This was a faith-based test, but the problem is that the faith being tested wasn't Christianity. It was right-wing Christianity. "Liberal" and "This I believe" and "Is God on America's side?" are code phrases that play right into Bush's hands. Making the Democrats play that game only inflames Bush's core supporters on the religious right, and the answers are irrelevant because nobody—nobody—this election season can out-Christian Bush, not even a preacher like Sharpton.

The nation's first real evangelical Christian president, after all, was Jimmy Carter, but he happened to be from the liberal branch, as Sharpton is.

How is any candidate supposed to reply to the question "Is God on America's side?" Should he say "no" and alienate God-fearin' Amurricans? Should he say "yes" and hopelessly try to out-Christian Bush? What a set-up. Like at a typical Inquisition, you're thrown off the cliff: If you die, it proves you were evil, and if you survive, it proves that evil forces protected you—which means you were evil.

The journalists' follow-up questions were tough on "faith" but weak on everything else. Kucinich rightly pointed out that the top Democrats were hawks on the Iraq invasion, and that could have dominated the rest of the debate. Sharpton rightly pointed out that the U.S. played a huge role in the latest Haiti breakdown by blocking millions of dollars of international aid that had already been approved by the World Bank. Any follow-ups? Not really.

So why did Bumiller and Rather keep trying to bring it all back to Bush's Christian turf? Maybe they were caught up in the passion of the Christ—a lethal weapon in the hands of these tinpot Torquemadas.

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