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PBS Steady, Not Flashy

Reported by Judy - September 30, 2004 -

Public Broadcasting Service tonight (Sept. 30) showed why it's the station of choice for Americans who dislike political debate conducted at the level of shouting and cross-talking

In its coverage of the debate, PBS ignored the candidates' agreed-upon rules regarding camera angles and showed numerous shots of one candidate listening while another talked. I counted 17 shots of Kerry on camera while Bush was talking and 24 shots of Bush while Kerry was talking. Those shots did not produce anything as remarkable as a candidate checking his watch, but Bush sometimes looked remarkably like the picture cartoonists sometimes draw of him -- a small guy with big ears behind a big podium.

PBS offered three panels following the debate, the first featuring columnists David Brooks, Republican, and Mark Shields, Democrat. Brooks called it a draw that would not change the dynamic of the race. He also said Bush held his own on facts. Well, he is the president. Isn't that the least we can expect?

Shields said Kerry was effective in attacking Bush for rushing to war without a plan to win the peace, and that he provided voters with new information, i.e., the building of 16 permanent U.S. bases in Iraq. He also said Kerry was effective in separating the war on terror from the war on Iraq by calling the war on Iraq a diversion from the war on terror. Shields also thought Kerry got stronger as the debate went on, but Bush seemed to get tired. I imagine Bush was tuckered out after 90 whole minutes of having to think on his feet. Shields also thought that if the debate was a draw, it really translated into a positive for Kerry the challenger because the upcoming debates will be on subjects that favor him, rather than Bush.

The second panel was a pair of political pros -- Republican C. Boyden Grey and Democrat Donna Brazile. Brazile said this debate on foreign policy was the one where Bush supposedly has the biggest advantage over Kerry, yet Kerry was able to keep him on the defensive. Brazile faulted Kerry for not keeping the discussion on the problems of individual soldiers -- such as lacking body armor and unarmored vehicles -- as much as she would have liked him to.

Grey salled it a strong performance by Bush, who is said was more articulate than Kerry. I guess if you just said, "Saddam Hussein was a threat," and "It's hard work" over and over you should have the lines down pretty well.

A panel of presidential historians also dissected the debate. Richard Norton Smith said the debate was better than the ones in 2000 because it was about large issues. (That alone says a lot. We didn't need to talk about war in 2000 because the world was at peace.) Smith also said there were no real sound bytes to come out of the debate. He characterized Kerry as the smartest kid in the class and Bush as the wise old teacher trying to brush him off.

Ellen Fitzpatrick called the debate one of the most substantive ones the nation has seen in a long, long time, and that accounted for the lack of one-liners. She said Kerry came close with his comment that Bush's mistake with the war was worse than his mistaken comment on the war.

Michael Beschloss, a conservative historian who is a frequent guest on historians' panels on PBS, said nothing in the debate would cause any voters to change their minds, but they did present different temperaments. He called it Adlai Stevenson vs. John Wayne.

Overall, no shouting, no cross-talk, just old-fashioned civil dialogue.