What did we get out of the two presidential debates? Reminders, mostly -- of the political truth that when the public settles for little, it winds up with less. We were reminded, too, that George Orwell -- this is still his year -- was right: "Political speech . . . is largely the defense of the indefensible . . . Thus, political language has to consist of euphemism, question-begging, and sheer cloudy vagueness."
Between the candidates, Reagan was the more Orwellian. As president, he has consistently displayed a stunning capacity for mental laziness. His mistakes with facts and figures are so common that there is little news value to them anymore. Errors have been routinized to the point that it seems that only the chronic carpers keep mentioning them. Only negativists think that intelligence should be expected of a president.
In his closing statement in the second debate, Reagan, as if to taunt his critics that he can still fog it through, came on with another anecdote -- about his "assignment" of writing a letter for a time capsule to be opened in 100 years.
Reagan, exemplifying the sheer cloudy vagueness that Orwell warned of, began his tale but never finished it. For a moment, it appeared as if he might pull out of his vest pocket the letter he wrote: "Dear Future Fellow Americans of the 21st Century . . ." That would have been hokey but at least fresh. In the past two years of ceaseless electioneering, no candidate had yet read a time capsule letter. Instead of saying what he wrote, Reagan vaporized off the subject and began telling about the "wonderful experience" of traveling the country with George Bush, "one of the finest vice presidents this country has ever had."
The clock ran out and Reagan had to be silenced. This was no occasion for Reagan to cry out, "This is my microphone." It was the public's microphone. Citizens were being abused by a common babbler making a final hustle for votes while challenging no one, least of all himself, to think beyond the conventional.
That was the paralysis of the two debates. Structural changes are needed for America, yet neither candidate dared break through to offer serious reflections on redefining us as a nation or redirecting us as a people. Tinkerings are needed, they suggested, not an overhaul.
To read the text of Reagan's remarks is to look at a mind that gives no awareness of how deep is the human suffering in the world. It is global, as in the 40,000 deaths every day in the Third World from malnutrition. It is local, as in the crushing increases of taxes on the poor. In 1980, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a family of four at the poverty line paid $462 in federal taxes. Today, after three years of Reagan, the figure is $1,079.
Reagan has been able to deal in impressions throughout his presidency. The debates with Mondale were structured so that he could continue. The president, at one point, was challenged by Mondale on human rights. Spontaneously, Mondale referred to remarks two days earlier of Bishop Desmond Tutu, that the administration supports the oppressive government of South Africa. Pressed by Mondale to talk about South Africa, Reagan came back with his rebuttal: "Well, the invasion of Afghanistan didn't take place on our watch."
The moderator didn't break in to say that South Africa was the question, not Afghanistan. Mondale was not allowed to push Reagan. The president's finger-pointing, sloganeerings and posturing passed unchecked.
This was programmed into his presentation. None of the reporters, in either debate, had the courage to tell Reagan, when some telling was appropriate, that his answer was irrelevant to the question. The audiences were reprimanded for being alive: "I must again ask the audience not to applaud," said the second moderator. "Not to cheer. Not to demonstrate its feelings any way."
Why have a live audience at all? Since when is a suppression of feelings needed for democracy? The watered-soup format was well-suited for Reagan. It hurt Mondale. Any aggressiveness from him, or any outburst that Reagan was again trading in guff, would carry the weight of rudeness. He would lose votes for disrespect.
The absence of forcefulness is not a sudden disgrace. In 1920, H.L. Mencken, writing on the American presidency, said that "the man of vigorous mind and stout convictions is gradually shouldered out of public life . . . All the odds are on the man who is, intrinsically, the most devious and mediocre -- the man who can most adeptly disperse the notion that his mind is a virtual vacuum. The presidency tends, year by year, to go to such men."
This year, the pattern seems to be holding.