Unlike most Americans, I took the presidential debates seriously. I didn't just sit there eating popcorn, expecting to be entertained. What made my debate-watching so meaningful was all the helpful comments I got from the TV commentators and experts.
A week before the debate, the designated experts sat around and told us what the candidates were going to say. Then the campaign spin doctors appeared on the talk shows telling me what they hoped the candidates would not say. Then there was a mock debate with reporters playing the role of candidates. Those of us in the election business call this political foreplay.On the night of the event, the stuff the commentators had been withholding was then released during the evening news: Dole was going to pull a surprise. Clinton threw away his defense of Hillary and refused to comment on any book written about her in the past 12 months. Dole decided to take off the gloves and demand to see Clinton's discharge papers from World War II.
Jack Kemp appeared on the satellite from Buffalo predicting that Dole would clobber Clinton and he would rather be Kemp than Al Gore tonight.
Al Gore said that Clinton was the best debater he had ever seen.
Then the networks went to the ordinary folk in Muncie, Ind., gathered at David Griffin's home eating chicken fingers. The group was a cross-section of Americans, consisting of eight Clinton supporters, eight Dole supporters and a half of a person for Ross Perot.
The people sat around a table saying who they thought would win and why it didn't matter who the victor was since their minds were made up anyway.
Then, back to the debate stage, where both men were poised behind their lecterns. The spin doctors were standing offstage ready to jump in as soon as the debate was over. The associate TV producers were talking to the control booth, asking whether they wanted Sen. D'Amato or Sen. Dodd to tell us what the candidates said.
For the next 90 minutes I sat there listening to what sounded like an old familiar refrain: Clinton was accused of being a liberal, Dole couldn't make up his mind on the dangers of tobacco. The candidates said that the people wanted more money and less government but without any loss of Social Security and Medicare benefits.
I absorbed it all. When it was over, Liddy Dole, pushed by three Republican handlers, rushed onto the stage. Hillary and Chelsea hopped up to embrace Clinton.
Then came the good part. The network commentators asked their election experts who won and who lost: Dole didn't win, therefore he lost. Dole showed that he had a sense of humor, which Clinton failed to do.
The people in the Griffin house reported that no one changed his or her mind except the Ross Perot supporter, who tried to switch the channel to a "Seinfeld" rerun.
I watched straight through to midnight when the networks started getting reaction from the Vatican and Bosnia.
I have decided that you just can't have an election without debates. What I really look forward to is the next day's newspapers to find out what the candidates had to say.