If it's Monday, this must be Michigan.
The six candidates for the Republican presidential nomination have covered more miles with their debate roadshow than the traveling company of "Cats." Hanover, N.H., then on to Phoenix, followed by Des Moines. A few days with their families over Christmas and then--another opening, another show!--last Thursday, in Durham, N.H.
Friday found them in Columbia, S.C.
Tonight, Grand Rapids.
And there's more to come--lots more. Never in American political history have so many debated so often in such far-flung places. When the Republicans aren't debating, the Democrats are. Vice President Gore and former senator Bill Bradley faced off for the fourth time Saturday afternoon in Iowa. Today America witnesses--well, a sliver of America witnesses--the fifth debate in six days.
If Gore gets his way, there will be even more.
Americans are taught to revere debates from a very early age. Schoolchildren know that in 1858 tall, thin Abraham Lincoln and short, fat Stephen A. Douglas went from one end of Illinois to the other, debating seven times along the way. Lincoln lost the election to the U.S. Senate, but the debates made him famous, and two years later he won the White House and saved the Union.
Voters can learn a great deal when the candidates appear together. For example, they learn that guys like Lincoln and Douglas don't come along very often. What else? Well . . .
Bill Bradley apparently owns only one necktie.
In the first couple of Democratic debates last year, eyes were mainly on Gore, because people were afraid he might vanish suddenly--poof! Like flash paper. That's how badly things seemed to be going for him.
But once Gore survived two or three encounters without spontaneously combusting, it seemed safe to focus on Bradley a bit. Lo and behold, the former senator has worn the same cranberry-red tie with tiny blue stripes to every debate. He also wears this tie nearly every day he is out campaigning.
What is Bradley trying to tell us? Perhaps his style is a holdover from his earlier life, when he had only two work outfits--light for home games, dark for road games.
Certainly, the four Democratic debates so far have included plenty of reminders of Bradley's athletic career. Bradley the basketball superstar was known for his economy of movement, and in debates he is similarly thrifty: brief, almost laconic, in his answers. He was also known on the court as a pusher, a shover, a good man with an elbow. Much like the man who said scornfully last week: "Let me explain to you, Al, how the private sector works."
But Bradley's tie may also be saying that here is a man too lofty to be bothered with mere haberdashery. In contrast to Gore, who has tried everything from banker-blue suits to cowboy boots and earth tones, Bradley has had his one tie, and his one blue shirt and--as he revealed during a campaign stop last fall--the same pair of black shoes for more than two decades.
Gore sees a weakness in this loftiness. "I believe that the presidency is not an academic exercise, it's not an extended seminar on theory," Gore says. Last week, Bradley found himself forced to insist: "I'm not aloof at all!"
Gary Bauer has some strange voodoo working on George W. Bush.
A standard feature of the Republican debates has been a lottery by which the six candidates are assigned to question each other. Friday night in South Carolina, Bauer, a former Reagan administration official, turned to Bush and observed: "This is the fourth time in a row that I've drawn your name to ask the first question to. I think the odds are 10,000 to 1."
One man who has been in on the various debate negotiations says, "Bauer has definitely gotten under Bush's skin." He has used his uncanny string of questions to suggest that Bush is soft on abortion, soft on the Panama Canal--basically a phony on conservative issues all the way around.
This is extremely annoying to Bush because his strategy has been to paint his chief opponent, Arizona Sen. John McCain, as a friend of Democrats. He hates having, as a regular feature of the debates, a segment devoted to suggestions that he is the closet liberal in the bunch.
Behind the scenes, the Bush and Bauer camps have been downright testy with each other. The Bush people, for example, protested when Bauer--a diminutive man--asked to be allowed to stand on a box. Bauer finally prevailed.
By now, all the Republicans surely are getting on one another's nerves. The relentless, unprecedented schedule of debates feels like a political version of the recent television hit in Denmark and Sweden in which a bunch of people were locked in a house full of cameras that followed their every move--even in the bedrooms and bathrooms. Once a week the audience voted to throw one person out of the house. The last one left won some money.
In this version, the winner gets the nomination.
Debate fans are not a peace-loving people.
No matter how much our civic virtue yearns for dignity and substance, the history of presidential debates proves that the memorable moments are always quick, seemingly unscripted and merciless. Richard M. Nixon in a flop-sweat, Gerald R. Ford liberating Poland, Ronald Reagan saying "there you go again," Michael S. Dukakis forced to weigh the hypothetical rape of his wife.
It's a tough business.
So many debates, so many formats. Some have been conducted with great decorum and gravity, such as Saturday's Democratic session in Johnston, Iowa. Others have included an epic slugfest (the Democrats in Durham), a virtual street brawl (the Republicans in Durham) and a gladiatorial entertainment for a cheering, heckling--boozy?--crowd (the GOP in South Carolina).
The Democrats in Durham gave arguably the best debate so far. There was substance. There was tough give-and-take. The very similar politics and very different personalities of the two candidates were crystal clear.
A number of Republicans who watched Gore-Bradley in Durham felt the key to that success was the two-man field. Aboard his bus, the storied "Straight Talk Express," McCain spoke longingly of a chance to get Bush one-on-one. The debate is more focused, the choice clear-cut, he said.
The Republican events, by contrast, struck McCain adviser Marshall Wittmann as "a two-man play with four extras. And the extras keep wandering to center stage and giving soliloquies."
Which brings us to our final lesson . . .
Andy Warhol--and your father--were wrong.
One factor in the debate glut must be the explosion of media outlets. Already, debates have been moderated by Peter Jennings, Ted Koppel, Tom Brokaw, Tim Russert, Brian Williams, the editor of the Des Moines Register and more. The Durham debates were sponsored by three institutions--a newspaper and two television stations--and had a different moderator each night.
Immediately after each debate, the airwaves filled with scores of reporters and political outriders expounding on various wavelengths about the outcome, and within a few hours there were debate stories on dozens of Web sites.
The nature of the participants has changed too, perhaps forever. True, there are still senators and governors and vice presidents up there. But now they are joined by millionaires and former undersecretaries who have mastered radio or direct mail.
It was Warhol who observed that, in the future, everyone will be famous for 15 minutes. He should have said an hour--the length of a debate. Because while Dad was surely exaggerating when he said any kid can grow up to be president, it may turn out that any kid can grow up to take part in a presidential debate.