First presidential debate

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(Host) The presidential debates began last week, and commentator Philip Baruth barged in on some friends to watch it on their TV. He was both pleased and appalled by what he saw.

(Baruth) The television in our house doesn’t get any channels. For some reason, it only works as a monitor for the VCR, and as a result we don’t watch TV – just movies that we rent and then forget to take back and pay endless late fees to keep in our house. It’s laziness that’s led to my family not having a working television, in other words, not conviction.

But when something really important happens, I exert myself, and I find a television somewhere in the world, and I watch what needs to be watched. I barged in on some friends and watched the first Presidential debate live from Coral Gables, Florida. I got there early, and so we channel-surfed a bit before settling on 101 Funniest Moments from Saturday Night Live.

Now, there was a time in my life when I lived for Saturday Night Live – back in the heyday of Bill Murray. But this Best-of show was all but unwatchable: the format was 15 seconds of a classic SNL skit, followed by several long minutes of commentary by orscure comics, analyzing exactly why Bill Murray was funny. The format began to seem like an SNL skit in its own right.

But then the debate started, and I have to say I was pleasantly surprised, or at least unexpectedly undisappointed: I’d read so much about how rigid and controlled it was going to be, but it didn’t come off that way. The candidates seemed to have about as much time as they wanted to give their answers, and Jim Lehrer invoked the thirty-second follow-up rule enough to give things some small feel of back-and-forth. And you had to love the little colored timing lights on the podiums; it gave it all this nerdy sort of 1950s gameshow air.

Partly I loved the theatre of it; but beyond that it was a chance to ask myself a long ninety-minute question about whether I was backing the right candidate in this race. And I thought John Kerry and George Bush answered that question for mek, as definitively as I could have expected.

But then we made the mistake of watching the post-debate coverage: spin doctors from both sides. This was followed by interviews with a focus group of undecided voters. The undecided voters had been asked to keep a running chart of their feelings about the debate with tiny hand-held meters; and the moderator went over some of those instant results, broken down to male and female voters.

Suddenly everything was balanced and equal in its meaninglessness. It had the same effect as the talking heads talking the Saturday Night Live skits to death: what had been a relatively clear and relatively thoughtful hour and a half of television almost immediately came to seem petty and unprincipled and unimportant.

And I was reminded of the morning of September the 11th, another time I had to run out quick into the world and find a television; and when I did there was Tom Clancy commenting on some footage of the falling towers. Tom Clancy, the guy who writes thrillers, fiction about terrorists.

And I remember thinking, What happened to television while I was away?

Philip Baruth is a novelist living in Burlington. He teaches at the University of Vermont.

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