The newspaper I write for sponsored a debate between the two local mayoral candidates. I was on a panel of journalists that asked the candidates questions, grilling them like they were suspected terrorists at Guantanamo.
If journalists were allowed to waterboard political candidates, I suspect we’d get more honest answers to our questions.
Still, the chance to wear a suit and sit on a stage in public while over a hundred people scrutinize your every move makes for an entertaining evening.
The newspaper asked other news outlets if they wanted to participate and they said no, although one daily paper that bowed out sent a reporter to cover the debate.
The panel consisted of yours truly, the editor of our sister paper and a former Philadelphia Inquirer investigative reporter now weekend anchor at a local television news station. My editor and boss moderated the debate.
Debates are all about preparation. Since the event was being taped for television, I wanted to look my best. Just because you’re a journalist doesn’t mean you have to resemble a homeless vagrant in a burlap bag. My blue pinstripe suit sufficed as an adequate garment that depicted professionalism and told the world I was being paid far more than I actually am. I stuck a cloisonné American flag pin in my lapel, projecting patriotism for all of those old fogeys who thought all journalists were to the left of Trotsky.
When we arrived at the auditorium, I realized how under prepared we all were. Nobody thought to bring bottled water, and immediately my lips grew parched. My tongue felt like sandpaper. Here we were, minutes from the debate and I was dying of dehydration. Since the event occurred at a high school, I ran to the cafeteria as fast as my muscular, well-toned journalist legs could carry me. A vending machine that dispensed bottles of precious water was unfortunately broken. Disappointed and panicked, I returned to the auditorium, my parched throat closing.
The debate began with the two candidates shaking hands and delivering their opening statements. The journalists would each ask questions at the moderator’s direction. Both the editor from our sister paper and I had our questions prepared beforehand, while the television anchor was jotting down a few notes.
I was picked to ask the first question, and I would hit the candidate hard, like his head popped up from one of those Whack-A-Mole arcade games. He wouldn’t see it coming because the question was specifically tailored for him.
Unfortunately, I was called on at that moment to ask a question of the other candidate. Scrambling, I shuffled through my notes like a kid summoned in front of class to give a book report on a book he hadn’t read. I pinpointed another question and just blurted it out through my dry mouth.
When my mouth is dry, I tend to salivate. So when I delivered the question, the saliva, combined with exhaling produced bubbles. Through gurgling and slurring, I asked my question, like I had just crawled out of the Viper Room at 5 a.m. after a night of drinking Patron with Megan Fox and Scarlett Johansson.
After both candidates answered, it was the TV anchor’s turn. This guy was a consummate professional, very dignified and majestic in his delivery. Broadcast journalists train their speech and hone their pronunciation, and this guy was no exception. He spoke in a mellifluous tone that would make any NPR newsreader weep with pride. His sonorous voice punctuated the question perfectly and made you take notice. Though it was a sweetly lobbed softball, the audience seemed engaged, whereas my voice sounded like a bag of gravel scraping a concrete embankment.
Why do politicians dodge questions? It’s as if the complexities of the English language are so incomprehensible, that they actually mishear entire sentecnes.
The simple question: “How will you reduce taxes?” shouldn’t elicit a diatribe about your opponent’s business qualifications as an amusement park owner.
As the debate progressed, the questions grew tougher. There were few linguistic haymakers and no knockouts. I went for the jugular twice, asking each candidate about their connections in town and if this could be constituted as favoritism. Watching a candidate try to wriggle out of a question is like watching a kitten trying to escape from a rucksack: amusing yet oddly disturbing.
The average citizen does not want to see a civil, harmonious debate. They want a bloodletting akin to the Roman Colosseum. They want each candidate to quash each other with zingers, barbs and an arsenal of linguistic weaponry. It’s fierce combat between the titan and the weakling, the ultimate winner and loser.
Yet our debate didn’t pack the steel cage death match I had hoped to see: no chest thumping, wild accusations or gotcha moments. It was like these two somber guys were in our living rooms trying to sell us insurance. Where were the fireworks of the Kennedy/Nixon debate, or the Lincoln/Douglas debate? Locally, the candidate's responses were as dry as my arid mouth.
After the debate people came up to me and said I did a good job, that the debate was informative and educational. I felt a sense of accomplishment for weathering the hour and a half of scrutiny and acting like a professional journalist.
One plus following the debate: my editor took the reporters out for dinner and drinks.
Stella Artois worked its effervescent magic and dulled the pain of politics.