The final presidential debate for this year will take place on Wednesday.
I won’t be watching.
I know, I know, it’s my civic duty to be informed, to make an educated decision, to find out all I can about the candidates.
However, it is not my civic duty to volunteer for torture that is slightly more frightening than waterboarding.
There is one thing I feel when I watch presidential debates: embarrassment. I feel embarrassed for the candidates, for myself, for the entire country. And I don’t mean just when the debate is between Hillary and the Donald. I couldn’t watch any of those Republican debates that featured more candidates than there are on a football team or the Democratic debates between Hillary and Bernie.
I guess my problem is that I hate to see people auditioning for the biggest job in the world – well, maybe except for being a parent – by avoiding questions, telling half-truths or no-truths and generally spending all that time and effort trying to project an image instead of providing answers.
Modern presidential debates really started in 1960, when the suave John Kennedy made history by looking cool while Richard Nixon looked hot and bothered. It is significant that few people remember what either of them actually said.
Nixon learned his lesson and refused to debate in 1968 or 1972. But Gerald Ford was desperate in 1976 so he challenged Jimmy Carter to a debate. Ford had his famous “there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe” moment during that debate. He should have followed Nixon’s example.
Four years later, Carter brought a conversation with his daughter Amy into the conversation about nuclear war, which left a lot of people scratching their heads. Amy was 13 years old at the time, not the usual age for an adviser on nuclear bombs.
There was Ronald Reagan in 1984, responding to questions about his age by saying, “I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” Reagan was 73 years old. Walter Mondale was a mere youngster at 56 years of age.
Then, of course, there was Lloyd Bentsen’s “you are no Jack Kennedy” line aimed at Dan Quayle in the vice presidential debate in 1988 and Ross Perot’s “I’m all ears” in 1992.
Did you notice, though, that the things we remember most are one-liners or images that really don’t have anything to do with being president?
I think presidential debates are like stock car races. Everyone who goes says they just want to see fast cars, but deep down inside they are really hoping for a good crash. We tune into debates hoping to see the half-court shot, the Hail Mary pass or the walk-off grand slam. What we get is a bunch of double dribbles, fumbles and strikeouts.
To top it off, debating skill is an almost unneeded requirement for presidents. They are at the top of the food chain — they don’t debate with people, other people have to debate in front of them. Presidents have diplomats who do all the heavy lifting when it comes to thrashing out deals, all the president has to do is show up, sign the paper, shake the other fellow’s hand and take the credit. The only time presidents debate at all is when they’re running for office.
Well, you say, a debate shows how well a president thinks on his feet. But you know what? Presidents generally don’t have to think on their feet. They have lots of time and lots of information to make most decisions. I don’t think coming up with a one-liner during a meeting with Vladimir Putin is going to make much of an impression.
I do have to admit that both JFK and Ronald Reagan were masters at coming up with those one-liners. I guess it’s no coincidence that they are the two most popular presidents of the past 60 years.
Anyway, I really do think presidential debates are pretty much a waste of time, other than for the drama of the whole thing and a chance for us to criticize everyone involved. You might not remember this, but in 1984 and 2012 it was pretty much universally agreed that two candidates were clear losers in their first debates of the year. Their names were Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama. It didn’t really seem to make any difference.
So on Wednesday night, I’m tuning out. You might think it’s unpatriotic of me but about a half hour into the debate when you’re squirming in your seat and feeling uncomfortable, think about me. I might miss a train wreck but I guarantee I’ll sleep better than if I subjected myself to political torture.
David Lindeman is a Troy resident and former editor at the Troy Daily News. He can be reached at [email protected]