WOULD SOMEBODY care to tell me what was wrong with the way the League of Women Voters ran the presidential debates?
Something called the Commission on National Elections, which was run by Robert S. Strauss and Melvin R. Laird, two old pros I never thought of particularly as reformers, has come forward and fixed something that wasn't broke. I went to all the panels the women arranged, and they looked fine to me, and to almost everyone else who watched them.
They did what debates are supposed to do. They put the two contenders for the world's greatest office together, under bright lights and enormous pressure. They required the candidates to give answers to the same questions.
Some of the questions could have been better, but that wasn't the League's fault. Some of the questioners might have been better, too, but that again, can't be blamed on the League. And, sure, the format could have allowed for more give and take, but the managers were responsible for that.
We got an idea of how the candidates regarded themselves and each other. When you watched Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford stand in the dark of a Pittsburgh power failure and not exchange a single word, you understood you were dealing with a pair without flair.
When you saw Ronald Reagan prancing onto the stage in Cincinnati in October, 1980 you understood his self-confidence and his self-esteem. When you heard Jimmy Carter say that his 11-year-old daughter, Amy, was terribly concerned about the nuclear issue, you got a glimmer of why he made so many Democrats grind their teeth.
Men can arrange these things better?
Is this another case of women not understanding throw-weight or Afghanistan and hankering after human interest instead of human rights?
Strauss, a former Democratic national chairman, and Laird, who's always been at home in the backroom, were probably just trying to make the party chairmen feel a little chestier and give the national committees some relevance to the campaign.
Parties don't matter much in presidential elections. Candidates have their own organizations, their own advisers and money- raisers. Party chairmen aren't even coat-holders. You have only to think back to the 1984 campaign when Walter Mondale was stuck with a chairman he tried to fire to understand how great the distance can be.
And we are being told that if the chairman has a presidential candidate who doesn't feel like debating, he can force him to the table.
The president of the League of Women Voters, Dorothy S. Ridings, is, naturally, irate. She points out that national committee's only function is to elect its man. The League has the public's interest at heart.
"I am not surprised," she said. "Bob Strauss made it plain from the beginning that doing something about the 'awful debates' was about the most important thing the commission could do."
"But I'm not upset, either," she added, "because I don't think it's going to happen. I wish I had a nickel for everyone who told me that the League wouldn't be running the l984 debates -- you remember people were saying the networks would take over."
The commission is the brainchild of Edward Ney, a Manhattan advertising executive, whose stated purpose was to do something about the obscenely high spending in presidential campaigns.
And what did the commission do about spending limits? It raised them. It called for lifting the limit on personal contributions from $1,000 to $2,500. That's a big help. What did it do about the off-the-boards spending by political action committees? Nothing.
"While some reform is called for . . . the American presidential electoral process, has, by and large, served the nation well," was its smarmy conclusion. If that was the case, why was the commission formed in the first place?
And did it do anything about shortening the endless length of presidential campaigns? Presidential campaigns are like Christmas, starting earlier every year. It is still Indian Summer when the amplifiers start oozing "White Christmas" and those ghastly blue lights with the white plastic garlands that looked like frightened maribou are put in place.
It's hard to say exactly what any commission could do about people who start haunting New Hampshire two years before any vote is cast, but at least it could suggest that a decent interval be observed between elections.
The commission did come up with one good idea: We should have a National Registration Day, make a big fuss about it, hound people to the sign-up centers and generally make them understand that they are idiots even to consider not voting.