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Chicago Sun-Times


Thursday, September 30, 2004

In the face of all sorts of reasons why they shouldn't be, Americans are optimists. They have a remarkable, and some might say foolish, ability to hold out hope that causes thought to be lost will be won. So it is with the presidential debates. Despite assurances that tonight's faceoff between George W. Bush and John Kerry will be devoid of real content, the nation will tune in looking for meaningful moments.

There is good reason the debates, of which there will be three leading up to the November election, have been written off as canned theater. The give-and-take and pitched exchanges that once were permitted between candidates -- the elements, in other words, that would make these real debates in practice as well as name -- have been chased from the proceedings by micromanaging political parties who fear the unscripted remark the way vampires fear daylight. Everything from camera angles to reaction shots is predetermined. Even former President George H.W. Bush has characterized the debates as ''too much show business and too much prompting.''

But if the likelihood is that nothing of importance is going to come out of these debates, not even enough to sway the small percentage of undecided voters to one side or the other, there is always a chance that viewers who focus on the issues will hear something that will give them a fuller understanding of Bush or Kerry or both. That understanding can arise as much by how one of the candidates expresses his views as what those views are. At this late date, their stances on the issues are pretty much etched in stone, but you never know when a contradiction will sneak into the discussion and upset their strategy, or when, in the heat of the moment, Bush or Kerry will suffer a revealing lapse of logic or consistency. As sportswriters say when a heavy favorite is upset, that's why they play the games.

That said, we can only hope groups like the independent Citizens Debate Commission succeed in bringing about serious reforms in the way the debates have been governed since a private corporation serving the parties seized control from the League of Women Voters after the 1984 elections. There are limits to how much Americans will allow themselves to be manipulated by the political process. Sooner or later, they will demand the opportunity to see how well candidates think on their feet, under pressure, with the whole world watching.