You probably don't know this, but there was yet another presidential debate the other day.
(ELVIS BARUKCIC/AFP/Getty )
You didn't see it. But don't feel bad – not that you would – but nobody saw it. It was on National Public Radio.
And the reviews have been positive, save for the little "it put me to sleep" factor. But all the plaudits got this writer thinking how you could repackage the debate, draw a crowd and inform a potentially large size of the electorate.
First off, the reviews. Columbia Journalism Review observed:
Yesterday's debate was no exception: when the radio stars kill the video, it seems, good things happen. The talk's moderators—Steve Inskeep, Michele Norris, and Robert Siegel—selected three general topics for discussion: Iran and the Lessons of Iraq, Relations with China, and Immigration. The goal wasn't breadth, but depth: "By covering a little less, we hope to go deeper," Siegel noted. "We will try to have some real discussion here today."And Salon's Walter Shapiro wrote:
For the most part, it worked.
In politics, radio can be the great leveler. According to legend, the 5 o'clock-shadowed Richard Nixon won the first 1960 presidential debate against matinee idol John Kennedy among voters who only listened on radio.Even Rolling Stone's Tim Dickinson had to give the debate format some some props:
And for two hours on Tuesday afternoon on National Public Radio, those veteran foreign-policy experts Joe Biden and Chris Dodd dominated the penultimate Democratic debate before the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses.
The NPR debate was a good one this afternoon. Not that it was a great debate, per se, but it was a lively intelligent discussion. And the NPR moderators could all teach Wolf Blitzer a lesson or two on how to rein in blabbering candidates and steer a discussion.The unfortunate truth about this debate? As great and stimulating and (yawn) engrossing as the NPR debate may have been, we all know that if you tried it on prime-time TV it would inevitably revert back to the sound bite contest. Worse yet, it wouldn't change at all and it would be unwatchable.
The debate dealt with just three topics — Iran, China and Immigration — a long-form format that served the Iran topic best.
But isn't there a way to make people watch something so … important? Even in a world where we're starstruck and clicking around for the new TMZ TV show, there's got to be a teaspoon full of sugar to help the debate medicine go down.
And then it occurred to me: Have a few more NPR debates during the day. Then have Hollywood stars re-enact the transcript at night on TV. We always say that Washington, DC is "Hollywood for ugly people." Why not bridge that divide and teach Americans the candidates' stances and mindset on pressing issues?
Does it sound silly? Sure, a little. I don't even want to think about how ugly the "Let Clooney Play Me!" battle/lottery would get. And before you say "They're all liberals. What would we do for the Republican debates," remember that Tom Cruise plays a hawk really darn well in "Lions for Lambs" right now. (Paging Tom Selleck...)
And Buscemi as Kucinich? It's the part he was born to play, baby.
2008 is a critical election. The primaries are less than a month from now and then it's Away We Go Time. The networks, with the writer's strike, are facing a lot of empty prime-time hours right now. And celebrities are constantly climbing over each other to prove their political awareness.
The stars are aligned for Celebrity Debate, as long as the stars will step forward.
The American audience has already shown that we choose showbiz over statesmanship -- just take a look at voter involvement from 2004 versus "American Idol" participation. Why not combine the two? There are plenty of theories in MediaLand about how to breathe life into the political debates. Importing some celebrities is as good an idea as any.