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April 17, 2008
Obama vs. Hillary in
Philly: The Big Loser is ABC
PHILADELPHIA – At the gleaming new National Constitution Center here in
Philadelphia, I attended Wednesday night’s presidential debate. It was
the 21st Democratic debate of the cycle – held in the same
building where Barack Obama delivered his famous “race” speech last
month. The actual debate was held in a tiny, tiny room where I once saw
a very affecting presentation about the Declaration of Independence. On
posters and press passes alike, the event is billed as “Clinton vs. Obama,”
as though it were a prize fight or something.
And as though the campaign hadn’t been trivialized enough, the story of
the night was that the moderators, Charles Gibson and George
Stephanopoulos, asked shamefully superficial and gotcha-oriented
questions, which did not even begin to reach substantial policy issues
until the debate was nearly an hour old.
The entire first half of the debate consisted almost entirely of
rehashes of the nonsense non-stories of the past month – it was
all-Wright, all-“bitter,” all-Bosnia sniper fire, all flag pin all the
time. If policy or issues were discussed at all in the debate’s first 45
minutes, it came from the candidates, not the moderators. This was the
first debate since those stories broke, so I knew they’d be brought up.
But I had no idea that half the debate would be devoted to questions
And even after the March and April non-scandals were rehashed yet again,
we got an argument over “issues” like the flag pin and William Ayers –
the sort of stuff that only right-wing bloggers and e-mail forwarders
care about. That’s right, the Weather Underground received nearly 10
minutes of discussion time in the first network debate of the year.
was quite refreshing when Obama responded to yet another of the
ridiculous questions by saying that “I hope we don’t get so obsessed
with gaffes that we fail to see the truth” – that this is a crucial time
in our country’s history. Amen to that. Hillary didn’t help matters, at
one point even bringing up Louis Farrakhan and Hamas, out of context, in
a monologue sure to be quoted all week long by Fox News. Gibson finally
asked the debate’s first policy question, about Iraq, 52 minutes after
a result of this, since he spent the first half of the debate defending
himself against smears, Obama spoke for more than 60 percent of the
time, giving Hillary much more time in the second half, when actual
issues were discussed. The second half of the debate was handled
slightly better, even though the capital gains tax was discussed more
than anything else, and Gibson, somewhat absurdly, defined “middle
class” as making less than $200,000 a year.
Not to mention – how in the world can George Stephanopoulos moderate a
presidential debate involving Hillary Clinton, when he worked for Bill
Clinton for years, in the campaign and the White House? I’m not calling
him biased – George seemed pretty evenhanded in his questions – but
isn’t that a pretty clear appearance of a conflict of interest?
It was a great day, though, until the questions started. The
scene before the debate was something to behold. On 6th and
Arch streets on the corner of Independence Mall, rival groups of Hillary
and Obama supporters, with bullhorns, yelled at each other for several
hours. Even some anti-abortion people showed up, with some sort of
purple inflatable thing in tow that may or may not have been a mock
very much enjoyed taking all this in. But the funny part is that most of
the media here have been on the campaign trail for months, have been to
15-20 debates before this one, and they just want this whole thing to be
Who won the debate? Obama looked shaky. He seemed tired, like he wasn’t
feeling well and wasn’t at his best. Hillary, though, didn’t do anything
to distinguish herself, and bringing up the F-word – Farrakhan – could
backfire on her.
But the big loser was unquestionably ABC. The big story from the night
was the appalling triviality and shameless gotcha games, from a pair of
moderators obviously much more interested in superficial scandals than
the many issues that are actually important to the country.
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