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Valerie Fowler MEDIA OBSERVER Master of Ceremony DY TOM DOWE To paraphrase anthropologist Clifford Geertz, presidential debates are a story we tell ourselves about ourselves: we’re a deeply intel lectual, issue-oriented, content-rich, free, democratic society that wants nothing more than…yawn…Pass the remote. Geertz was writing, in 1972, about cockfighting in Bali, and the way it acted as “metasocial commentary” on Balinese societythis despite \(or perhaps because cal consequences removed and reduced…to the level of sheer appearances.” Contemporary politics is really no different, and with respect to the recent presidential debates many commentators have already rehashed the same tired conclusion: the debates were little more than a ceremony, a political demonstration match intended to provide voters with some flashy sparring, not honest debate. We weren’t faced with one rooster pecking another to bloody bits., instead, it was more like a contest between two pianoplaying chickens in a fairground vending machine, the winner decided by a judgment of which pecked out the more convincingly appealing version of our favorite political tunes. Hell, there’d have been more suspense if Clinton and Dole had played Wheel of Fortune, which is probably why the audience for these debates wasn’t half what it was in 1992. So it hardly matters whether you liked Bob Dole’s edgy, carping version of “So Clinton’s sonorous, wonkish rendition of “What You Got” \(including a plaintive chorus of “Baby, baby, baby, gimme one more chance! The stupefying sameness of the debates past the first 90/60/30 exchange led us to realize that chickens will always be chickens: they strut and preen and have sharp, pointed beaksinstruments largely unsuited to articulating policy visions, but highly useful when pecking PAC pockets for advertising scratch. What seemed most telling, then, was not the shrill, chattering debate machine, but the man chosen to pump it full of quarters. Who was that ask-man? Why Jim Lehrer, of course: host of the NewsHour on PBS and reportedly the only name floated by both camps on their long lists of potential interlocutors. It is telling that during protracted negotiations over knotty issues like dates, format, and dais height, the one issue both sides could agree on wasModeration. Comically over-rouged the night of the first debate, and sporting more dye in his hair than even Bob Dole, the 62-year-old Lehrer was the perfect choice for a major television non-event intended to stroke the nation’s collective ego. Lehrer was an avuncular, collegial, and ever-so-slightly journalistic presence nonpareil, and he deserves much of the credit for making the presidential debate series what it was: a meandering mush, a free-form duophony of pre-packaged talking points and half-hearted sucker punches, barely worthy of notice and not even quite up to the nettling sound-and-fury level of a Newsnour panel discussion. If President Clinton and Citizen Dole were merely game-show contestants, then Lehrer was truly their Vanna White, cheerily turning letters to reveal the answer to a puzzle solved by the rest of us a long time ago. Lehrer’s career has been an interesting and slightly tragic one, a life which mirrors in many respects the decline in fortune of one of our favorite moribund technologies, “public” broadcasting. Twenty-six years ago, Lehrer, a talented city editor for the now-defunct Dallas Times Herald, was invited by KERA-TV to participate in an experimental roundtable program called NOVEMBER 8, 1996 14 THE TEXAS OBSERVER