While televised debates play a dominant role in political campaigns, they should never be confused with conflicts over policy. These shows are psychodramas, nerve-wracking performances on the high-wire of ego. They resemble Survivor, the merciless reality-TV show, but they don't expose personalities, as Survivor claims to do. Instead they strip away the humanity of the candidates.
To impress the voters, political leaders turn themselves into something like aliens from a science-fiction movie, surrendering everything genuine in their nature. They stifle spontaneity. They must be earnest and forthright. They can't show humour, irony, or annoyance. They admit no failures. They pretend they are sure of their plans (always a big lie) and have faith in their caucus-mates (a bigger lie). They affect a self-confidence they can't possibly feel. (Surely no actual person can be as smug as Jack Layton appears to be in a debate.) They never say to an opponent, as normal people will, "You could be right about that."
Political debaters must not smile inappropriately. George W. Bush, in the first of the 2004 debates, was said to be smirking at John Kerry's criticisms. Everyone, including Bush's own handlers, agreed that smirking was a major crime. (There are those who accuse Stephen Harper of the same offence.) Meanwhile, Kerry grew so mechanical that a New York Times critic compared him to a flight attendant giving instructions on emergency landings.
A debate between Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter in 1976 illustrated the process of dehumanization. While they were arguing, the audio system crashed and their microphones went dead. So they stood absolutely still, Carter smiling and Ford frowning, as the technicians fixed the equipment. Repairs took 27 minutes, and in that time neither candidate left his place or spoke a single word to the other. Terror froze them mutely in their places, like Madame Tussaud's wax dummies.
Debates are now the ultimate ordeal of public life, the nightmarish moment in the arena -- except, of course, that in Canada the moment lasts an excruciating two hours (much lengthier than most American debates, and 20 minutes longer than their longest ever). The knowledge that you can blow it all in a few seconds produces pressure that must be close to unbearable. Whatever we think about the debaters' other qualities, we have to admire their courage and endurance.
And, sometimes, the force of their words. No one who saw them will forget Brian Mulroney vs. John Turner in 1984 (Mulroney won with a self-righteous accusation of patronage) and 1988 (Turner denounced Mulroney for selling out the country with free trade but lost the election).
Often, though, the content has no lasting importance. In 1960 Richard Nixon and John Kennedy argued bitterly about the importance of Quemoy and Matsu, two Taiwan-administered islands off the coast of mainland China. Since then, Quemoy and Matsu have seldom been mentioned. We can expect that the same will befall Paul Martin's threat on Monday night to pry open the Constitution and throw the country into turmoil (Quebec above all) to eliminate the notwithstanding clause from the Charter. "Eccentric" is the polite way to describe that notion, but Mary Janigan, in a Globe and Mail on-line commentary, had a better term: "Insanity."
Like so much else, TV debates were imported from the U.S. The story goes that they were dreamt up in 1960 by a New York advertising man with a car company as client. The sponsorship idea died but soon the networks were proposing Kennedy-Nixon debates. Kennedy's side was eager. He was handsome, articulate and optimistic, a near-perfect debater. No one has ever explained why Nixon agreed to compete. He was an egomaniac, of course, and perhaps thought a debate would demonstrate his superior IQ. His bad showing against Kennedy probably cost him the few votes by which he lost the election. There were no more presidential debates for 16 years, but eventually the tradition became so established that no leader would dare refuse to participate.
To dramatize the tension, The West Wing TV series recently had the actors playing presidential candidates, Jimmy Smits and Alan Alda, broadcast their debate live, stumbles and all. On Sunday The West Wing carried debate-anxiety further by broadcasting a program that the late John Spencer finished before his death in December. In that plot, the handlers of his character, Leo McGarry, are distressed by the possibility that he'll falter in the vice-presidential debate. But he ignores their advice and wins the debate by "being himself," a strategy not so far tried in real-life politics.