BOSTON -- "Let's go right to it, gentlemen," said moderator Chet Curtis, and they did.
For one hour in the Old South Meeting House, where, two centuries ago, fed-up colonists plotted the Boston Tea Party, Democratic educator John Silber and Republican lawyer William Weld went at each other in taut argument over which of them, as governor, would bring greater change to the thoroughly annoyed citizens of Massachusetts.
The setting was as uncluttered as the format. The Old South Meeting House has an austere and restful neo-classical interior, with gray walls and an ancient gold clock that stopped long ago at 20 minutes to 4.
The stage was bare except for the three podiums for the two participants and the moderator-timekeeper. Two jade green screens and a couple of fake sawed-off Corinthian pillars were the only concessions to production. There were no frantic makeup artists scurrying about and no producers flashing cue cards. And there were, most blessedly, no intermediaries, no panels of reporters with egos and futures as involved in the outcome as those of the candidates.
The absence of queries designed as much to show information as to elicit it greatly accelerated the pace. The tone was relentlessly substantive.
Weld and Silber, both highly educated and articulate, put questions of 45-second duration to each other; each had 2 minutes to answer and 90 seconds for rebuttal. This is called "the modified Lincoln-Douglas formula."
When it was over, the voters knew more about Silber and Weld, and the contestants had nobody to blame for points not raised or made.
Silber's agenda was obviously to prove again that he is not an ogre, not a Curtis LeMay in mufti. Weld had greatly assisted him in this endeavor in their first debate, when he was all prosecutor, hoping to provoke the fiery and tightly wound academic into one of his now famous "Silber shockers." Silber's job was to pin Weld to the mat on a massive tax rollback called CLT that would require an immediate $1.3 billion cut from an already shredded budget.
Weld opened by showing he could sling statistics with the best of them and could, as he said, "downsize government without hurting people" -- and most of all to show that he could rout every vestige of Michael Dukakis from the statehouse.
They took turns beating up on Dukakis. Silber said he found his fellow Democrat's incompetence "appalling," and advised Weld not to tell him about the disasters -- "I won the primary by the enumeration of them."
There was little byplay. Weld assiduously addressed PhD Silber as "Doctor" -- one of his slogans is "Say No to Dr. Know-It-All."
Silber didn't call Weld anything but said his figures were "fictitious."
When the debate was over, the contestants stepped down in the audience and undertook their own spin control. Each proclaimed himself the victor. But by noon the next day the verdict of the street was in: Silber was declared the winner even by those who would much prefer to vote for the pleasant and gentlemanly Weld.
The evening was a credit to the commonwealth and to the candidates. It was good politics and good theater; it was also good box office.
Most of all the encounter was a powerful, irrefutable argument for adopting the Lincoln-Douglas format for presidential debates.
Yes, there would be no surprise hypothetical questions. Potential leaders of the Western world would not be jolted into incoherence, but is that so important?
Silber started talking Lincoln-Douglas early in the campaign. A professor, and discursive, he was outraged by the 30-second sound-bite answer, especially after he heard a moderator in a primary debate ask candidate Frank Bellotti what he knew about Kitty Dukakis's drinking problems and when he knew them. The day after Weld won the Republican primary he challenged Silber to a head-to-head meeting. Silber adviser Jack Weeks and Weld campaign manager John Moffitt had a couple of easy sessions, and the deal was done.
The national parties should decide now to do the same, and agree to nominate only someone who would accept the Lincoln-Douglas routine. It's time to get the show biz out of debates, to remove the cushion of posturing analysts who protect the candidates and eat up time with interminable questions that deserve no answers.