Journalists have no business trying to stage-manage any aspect of the campaign we are covering. That's obvious. But it is also well-understood that rules are meant to be broken, and this is one I want to break.
I plead indulgence to make the case to those now negotiating the terms and conditions of the 1984 presidential debates that they be real debates -- and not modified joint press conferences. Specifically, I urge that, rather than have journalists question the candidates, the candidates question each other.
This is a case where the architectural doctrine of "less is more" surely applies. The voters are interested in seeing Ronald Reagan face off against Walter Mondale and George Bush against Geraldine Ferraro. Anything -- or anybody -- that distracts from this natural focus of attention ought to be removed, unless performing a vital function.
There is a function for a moderator who introduces the candidates, explains the ground rules and enforces them by calling time on an overly lengthy answer, for example.
But beyond that, there is nothing to be done that cannot be done by the candidates themselves. All four of these individuals are experienced public servants, familiar with the issues and well aware of their differences with their opponents.
There is no basis at all for believing that they cannot put their own cases, and challenge their opponents' contentions, as well as anyone in the world.
In terms of drama and viewer interest, the experience of the Democratic primary debates argues powerfully for eliminating the interlocutors of the press. The best moments -- the ones that crackled -- in those debates came when the candidates questioned each other and responded directly to each other.
In most of those debates, there was but a single moderator on stage, and in the critical exchanges, that person played no part. John Glenn and Mondale talked directly to each other in New Hampshire; Mondale challenged Gary Hart almost nose-to-nose in Atlanta; Jesse Jackson lectured both his rivals on their behavior in New York, all without a word or a gesture from the moderator.
I can think of only two possible objections to carrying over this healthy habit into the autumn debates. Some might contend that it is beneath the dignity of these worthies to engage in this direct sort of verbal confrontation. I can imagine some Republican strategist saying that "nice guy" Reagan should not be put in the position of asking Mondale to justify his public support of the Carter grain embargo while he privately thought it foolish. Even more easily, I can imagine some Republican saying that Bush should not be placed in the position of "attacking a lady," by being forced to question Ferraro himself.
On the other side, I can imagine some Democrat worrying that Mondale might appear disrespectful of the office of president if he questioned Reagan too vigorously, or that Ferraro might look strident and "un-ladylike" if she pressed Bush on his "voodoo economics" remark.
None of these protocol arguments carries weight. This is not a Washington dinner party we are discussing; it is a debate. And, as the old saying goes, if you can't stand the heat, get out of the studio.
Nor is there much merit in the argument that the candidates will not raise all the issues that journalists might ask. During the Democratic debates, we learned that the question asked -- or omitted -- tells you as much about the questioner and his motives as the answer given -- or evaded -- tells you about his rival.
As a voter, I am intrigued to guess what issues Reagan would raise with Mondale, and vice-versa, knowing that only a few topics can be covered and that millions of voters are watching and making up their minds. That would tell us much more than we could possibly learn by watching them struggle with the question on Afghanistan from The New York Times or on comparable pay from the Scramento Bee.
And now that I have mentioned, hypothetically, some of my colleagues, let me confess my final reason for hoping that the candidates will debate -- really debate -- this year. I think those stages and studios are bad places for us as journalists to be. There is no professional criticism intended of the reporters who have served on these panels. Their questions have been good, their attitude and demeanor thoroughly impartial.
there is no escaping that every time we do that job, we inject ourselves into the campaign -- into the central event of the campaign -- and become players, not observers. Whether the question impales a candidate or offers him escape from the tight corner of the previous exchange, we are affecting history, not just writing its firt draft.
To my fellow journalists, I would say: Let's play on our own ground, and insist that all these candidates, including the president, have frequent news conferences during the campaign.
But let the debates be debates.