Asking the Right Questions


You may have noticed a certain … ah … frothiness in the coverage of the 2000 presidential race to date. I don’t know about you, but The Unbearable Lightness of the Political Beat is really starting to chap me.

Early in November, we had the grave matter of whether Al Gore is an alpha male thoroughly parsed for us — one newsmagazine made it the lead story. We were also confronted with George W. Bush’s ignorance of the names of three out of four leaders in world trouble spots, and this called for much double-doming and deep dissection. After Ronald Reagan, who didn’t know all the names of his own Cabinet members, you would think there was little excitement to be mined in that department. The disquieting news that John McCain has a temper has been thoroughly mulled over by all and sundry. All this follows months of discussion on burning topics like W. Bush’s alleged drug use thirty years ago, vast attention to Gore’s shifting from blue suits to earth tones, Donald Trump being treated as though any reasonable citizen would consider voting for him, the Warren Beatty candidacy, and much more that is of no help whatever in selecting the next Leader of the Free World.

The most annoying aspect of all this piffle is the brain-dead defense that we in the media are writing about froth because the country is in a high state of peace and prosperity, and so there’s nothing important about which we need to ask the candidates. Thomas Friedman, the foreign affairs columnist for The New York Times, managed to raise a couple of substantial issues without even breaking a sweat, so we know it can be done. He suggested the following questions for Bush:

“You’ve already brought on some foreign policy advisers: Condoleeza Rice, Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle. They’re all Cold War conservatives. What is it about their world view that appeals to you?””You were in favor of the Senate’s rejection of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which would have banned all nuclear testing. Fine. Suppose you were sitting with Prime Minister What’s-his-face of India and General Whatever-his-name-is from Pakistan and trying to persuade them to stop testing. How would you explain why you believe America should retain the right to test nukes, but India and Pakistan should be denied it?””Do you believe your father was right when he decided at the end of the Gulf War not to go to Baghdad and take out Saddam Hussein, even though we had 500,000 troops on Iraq’s border?””Hispanic Americans are increasingly in favor of lifting the pointless U.S. embargo on Cuba. Your brother Jeb, the governor of Florida, wants to maintain the embargo in deference to his Cuban supporters. Where do you come down?”I suppose after eighteen months of Monica Lewinsky as the most important political story on the planet, we should be inured to the Maureen Dowdization of political coverage. But let me suggest a few items of perhaps greater import that we might ask our candidates to address.Our entire political system has been corrupted by the system of legalized bribery called “campaign financing.” Last week, Time magazine ran a two-page story citing the special-interest bills that have been bought through Congress recently. The airlines managed to scuttle a bill that had consumers cheering — it cost the airlines $3.2 million.The Patients’ Bill of Rights, bankruptcy overhaul, broadband access, Caribbean tariff relief, interstate wine sales — all of it is up for sale. We know that John McCain and Bill Bradley have ideas on how to fix this mess; what about Bush and Gore?The health-care system is increasingly fouled up. Only Bradley has come up with a plan to fix it.The public schools are in dire need of attention. How much longer do we think we can get away with paying schoolteachers less than $30,000 a year?

And then there is the dark side of the nation’s prosperity, which the media themselves have resolutely refused to address: Since 1977, average household income for the bottom 20 percent of Americans has gone down by 10 percent. For the middle fifth of the people, it has risen all of 8 percent since 1977, a roaring 0.5 percent a year. But for the top 1 percent, average income has gone up 115 percent. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the bottom 80 percent of the people in this country own 16 percent of the wealth; the top fifth owns 84 percent of the wealth.

None of this is inevitable or irreversible. Tax policy accounts for a great deal of the income inequality in this country.

The media are supposed to get candidates to give us something besides pat soundbites on these issues. The anodyne pabulum that passes for political discourse is the main reason that Americans are so turned off by politics. Ever heard George W. Bush’s stump speech? Like a good deodorant, it is guaranteed Not to Offend. In theory, it’s the media’s job to get the candidates to actually address the issues. So far we sound like the old parody of a reporter interviewing a movie star: “Do you sleep in the nude?”

Molly Ivins is a former Observer editor and a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Her forthcoming book, written with Observer editor Louis Dubose, is Shrub: The Short and Happy Political Life of George W. Bush. You may write to her via e-mail at [email protected].

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