"This greatest opportunity in American history to educate the voters by debating the large issues of the campaign failed," wrote one of our greatest historians. The debates were "remarkably successful in reducing great national issues to trivial dimensions." "Finally, the television watching voter was left to judge, not on issues explored by thoughtful men, but on the relative capacity of the two candidates to perform under television stress."
The author was Daniel Boorstin, and he was writing about the Kennedy-Nixon debates of 1960.
Nowadays, of course, those four black-and-white debates are recalled as a pinnacle of modern politics, as sober, intellectual and minimally stage-managed conversations between two statesmen who showed mastery of the world's issues. Boorstin saw them as farce.
With a month left in the 2008 campaign, I cannot imagine Boorstin's grave is large enough for adequate rolling over.
The McCain-Obama debates are without question the most high-minded and intelligent events in this long campaign. But do they mean diddly-squat? They are tiny and artificial islands of light in a sea of darkness — of dirty ads, distorted accusations, quarter-truths and poli-slime. What's worse: These really are two of our very best leaders. I think. I used to think. But now, I can't see through the fog.
Here's the voter's conundrum:
Is the real Barack Obama the inspiring orator of the Denver convention, the gifted author, the longtime public servant, the early and articulate opponent of the Iraq war, and the unflappable, cerebral debater? Or is he the head of the campaign that produced a 13-minute video about McCain and the Keating Five, and an ad that calls McCain "erratic in a crisis."
Is the real John McCain the senator who has waged a nearly 20-year crusade against corrupt congressional spending and the campaign finance system, the war hero, the foreign policy expert, and the fiery, experienced debater? Or is he the man whose campaign smears Obama by saying he thinks U.S. troops are just "air-raiding villages and killing civilians" in Afghanistan, and whose vice presidential nominee goes around saying, "Our opponent ... is someone who sees America, it seems, as being so imperfect, imperfect enough, that he's palling around with terrorists who would target their own country"?
Are these candidates responsible for the tone, tenor and tactics of their whole campaigns? If so, what do their campaigns say about their character? Or is this silly? Is "the system" so corrupt that you can't blame Obama and McCain for the slime because it just goes with the territory? Should we ignore the ads, in other words, and trust the debates?
Figuring out what empirical data — which facts, what reality — to weigh seriously is vexing.
Daniel Boorstin wrote about the presidential debates — and their illusions — in the context of one of the more underrated works of 20th century American political theory, The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America.
A pseudo-event is something so pervasive in public life now that it is invisible: campaign ads filled with lies, financial claims by corporations that are false, beer ads that are 10 paces past absurd or reality shows that are as real as Santa's elves.
The tragedy of it all: We're on to it. We know the phoniness of political campaigns, for example. We might not know exactly what "reality" is, but we know an illusion when we see one.
Boorstin wrote his book almost 50 years ago because he was worried the "pseudo" would corrode our collective capacity to be practical and pragmatic in grown-up ways. He knew that deconstructing the "pseudo" and calling out the phony is addictive and kind of fun.
"We are frustrated by our very efforts publicly to unmask the pseudo-event," Boorstin wrote. "Whenever we describe the lighting, the make-up, the studio setting, the rehearsals, etc., we simply arouse more interest."
Thus within 60 minutes after the second McCain-Obama debate finished, literally thousands of paid experts had publicly "unmasked" the event on broadcast television, cable, talk radio and the Web. They anointed winners and losers, decoded the buzzwords, checked the facts, calibrated the people-meter polls, interviewed the real people, and thoroughly digested and mediated the event.
If you want to put a happy face on this, here it is: Isn't it wonderful that voters can get soooooooo much information about the candidates? They can partake in so many different perspectives, so much analysis and wallow in the depths of all that political data and detail available in quanta never before imaginable.
If you want to put a wonk's face on it, here it is: The sober voter can ignore the spin, counterspin and punditry, and simply examine the candidates' stated policies and then choose.
In practice, what the vast majority of voters do is absorb all kinds of input and make intuitive, human judgments about which individual they like more. Voters vote on character.
And I have always believed this is rational and wise on the collective level, even if our individual judgments are actually more emotional and intuitive than strictly rational.
My faith in that expression of collective wisdom is broken.
Voters have picked two presidents in the post-cable, early-Web era: Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Hindsight aside, many, many voters were surprised and disappointed by the character of these men once they took office. The explosion of media and information, in my view, has created more darkness than light. Six months ago, I believed I had a sense of Barack Obama's character and John McCain's character. I don't anymore.
Once I began covering presidential politics, I stopped voting in presidential politics. For me, it was a small way to stay more open-minded and less shackled to my own habits and hunches. This year, I have another reason to abstain: I have no faith I know the candidates.