THERE HAVE BEEN a lot of these televised face-offs in the last few months among different groupings of candidates, though none quite so grand as Tuesday night's Kennedy Center performance which included all the announced Democratic and Republican contenders for president. For all its unwieldiness, we thought the thing came off better than the smaller and presumably more manageable debates -- or, more precisely, joint appearances -- that had preceded it. And the reason was obvious: at least to some extent the candidates were able to have at each other, without a whole lot of rulekeepers and questioners and interceders and small-talk makers getting into the act and, inevitably, controlling the agenda. NBC's Tom Brokaw was the only journalist involved in the proceedings.
Meaning no offense to our colleagues who have participated in these exchanges, the rule of thumb seems to us: the less the press, the better the result. Whether it is journalists or other pols or civic leader-types or whoever, the cumbersome panel of questioners and referees tends to get in the way or to turn the event into a kind of serial press conference in which all of the journalists, not just the candidates, are obliged to demonstrate something about themselves. This way is better. Yes, there was still plenty of empty boilerplate and evasion and cuteness and the rest. But this is present no matter who is asking whom what on such occasions. The difference was that you did frequently get something going between and among the candidates, and it got nice and rough from time to time, and the candidate-questioner could become exasperated or sarcastic or even abusive in a way that is off-limits for journalist-questioners.
TV critic Tom Shales thought that NBC's Tom Brokaw, who had a sort of circus master's role, was perfectly awful. We thought he was good. In particular, it seemed to us that the start-up questions with which he got each segment going were to the point and not laminated, six-part, aren't-I-smart presentations such as you often hear at press conferences.
So we thought the program did well. This was owing in part to the fact that some of the candidates did not. You could really see something on occasion, someone who wasn't equal to a blow landed by someone else, someone handling a tough moment masterfully. We thought that Richard Gephardt, Paul Simon and Jack Kemp all lost altitude in a rather dramatic way. Bob Dole seemed, again, not to have got his act together: he was wobbly and elusive on occasion and has yet to find an authoritative voice or much in the way of presence. George Bush, also again, did relatively well in these presentational aspects, not always, but most of the time. What these sessions can reveal, embedded in the palaver, is who has a position on an issue that he dares to enunciate and which makes at least minimal sense (many do not). Tuesday night's performances didn't tell you a lot -- but they did manage to tell you something