C'mon, Get Happy

By Dana Milbank
Friday, December 14, 2007

"Don't mention the war!" -- John Cleese in the "Fawlty Towers" episode "The Germans"

"We won't talk a lot about issues like Iraq." -- Carolyn Washburn, moderating the presidential debates in Iowa

JOHNSTON, Iowa -- A third of the way through Thursday's final presidential debate before the Iowa caucuses, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson made a plaintive plea to moderator Carolyn Washburn: Can't we please talk about the Iraq war?

"We're losing sight that that's the most important, fundamental issue affecting our country," he urged. "This is the number one issue affecting not just this country but Iowa caucusgoers."

"Thank you," Washburn replied primly. "I want to take on a new issue." She then led the candidates into a discussion about flex fuels and the corporate carbon tax.

Washburn, the earnest and schoolmarmish editor of the Des Moines Register, stunned the political world when she announced, at the beginning of the Republican debate on Wednesday, that she did not want to talk about Iraq and immigration, at least not in any "concentrated" way. She continued that policy Thursday with the Democrats, asking not a single question about Iraq. The words "terrorist," "Iran," "Pakistan" and "al-Qaeda" didn't get even a single mention.

What did viewers get instead?

"Tell us your New Year's resolution for 2008," Washburn proposed. Groans emanated from the media room down the hall. Hillary Clinton said she would exercise more. Barack Obama said he would be a better father. Richardson pledged to lose weight.

Here's a resolution for Washburn: Try not to moderate any more presidential debates.

The reviews were merciless after her performance with the Republicans on Wednesday.

"A latter-day Nurse Ratched," pronounced Dean Barnett in the Weekly Standard.

"Soporific," judged The Washington Post's Howard Kurtz.

Even columnist David Yepsen of Washburn's own newspaper wrote that "the biggest problem with the debate was that it wasn't really a debate. Candidates got almost no opportunity to grill one another."

Alas for Washburn, she didn't take the advice, for she proceeded to ignore all elephants in the room: She not only avoided the salacious (Clinton's apology to Obama after one of her advisers suggested that he may have sold drugs), but also skipped over the reality that the nation is at war.

This created a scene reminiscent of the "Fawlty Towers" episode in which innkeeper Basil Fawlty, trying not to offend his German guests by mentioning the war, keeps blurting out war references inadvertently: "So, that's two egg mayonnaise, a prawn Goebbels, a Hermann Goering, and four Colditz salads."

Asked about balancing budgets, Obama snuck in his desire for "ending the war in Iraq." Richardson worked it in when asked about entitlement programs. John Edwards did it when asked about his plans for the first year of his presidency. Joseph Biden seized his opportunity when given a chance to make an "opening statement" -- 32 minutes into the debate. (Actually, Biden was lucky to get his opening statement so early. Christopher Dodd, the last one to give an opening statement, was invited to give his 48 minutes into the 90-minute session.)

Washburn, standing squarely at a table and reading questions carefully from blue sheets of paper, seemed to be struggling in the role of moderator. More timekeeper than moderator, she nagged the candidates with admonitions to finish in their allotted 60 or 30 seconds. At one point, she called on Edwards, but the candidate pointed out that she had already asked him that question. "I mistook you for raising your hand again, so that was extra time," she justified.

Her questions seemed to be designed to avoid the possibility of disagreement. "Is too much of the federal budget going to entitlements? . . . Please describe the key features of what you consider to be the best education system in the world. . . . What are the lessons from Iowa?" Predictably, the answers had little chance of making the evening news. Richardson suggested that "we need to have mandatory phys ed." Obama proposed that "we've got to put away the video game." Clinton announced her opposition to the little-known "Lugar-Lautenberg bill."

"There were no fireworks here," Edwards's wife, Elizabeth, concluded after the debate.

So reporters were left to make much of small moments. They giggled like teenagers when Clinton said that "we do need a farm bill, and Tom Harkin's been working like a Trojan to get done." And they sensed a major story when Clinton interrupted one of Obama's answers with a burst of laughter. When Obama was asked how he would "rely on" so many of former president Bill Clinton's advisers, his wife cackled, then blurted out, "I want to hear that!"

"Well, Hillary, I'm looking forward to you advising me as well," Obama replied, and Clinton laughed again.

The cackle was the talk of the spin room after the debate. "The microphone picking up the laughter -- you don't see a problem with that?" a reporter asked Clinton strategist Mark Penn.

"Laughter's always a good thing in this country," Penn reasoned.

Sure beats talking about the war.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company