The Washington Times

Last week, the Commission on Presidential Debates announced the moderators for the 2004 election face-offs, and once again, I have been passed over in favor of the likes of Jim Lehrer and Bob Schieffer. In the brilliant Paddy Chayefsky-Sidney Lumet satire “Network,” Peter Finch plays Howard Beale, a network anchorman who has gone around the bend and become the “mad prophet of the airwaves,” mad as hell and not going to take it any more, vowing to speak the truth that no one else dares to.

There’s a scene in which he describes a late-night conversation he has had with a disembodied voice, perhaps the voice of God, which has urged him to bear witness. “Why me?” he recounts asking the voice. Came the answer: “Because you’re on television, dummy.”

Jim and Bob and Charlie Gibson for the presidentials as well as Gwen Ifill for the Dick Cheney-John Edwards matchup will no doubt acquit themselves with aplomb. No doubt some of the questions will be intended to be hard-hitting, and some will even actually be so. Nevertheless, the prospect is for the questioning of the candidates within a certain range only – not so much the range of topics as the emotional range, which is likely to be safe.

Nothing, surely, so audacious as the question with which CNN’s Bernard Shaw led off the second 1988 presidential debate, to Michael Dukakis: “Governor, if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?” Mr. Dukakis’ emotionless reply helped sink his candidacy: “No, I don’t, Bernard. And I think you know that I’ve opposed the death penalty during all of my life. I don’t see any evidence that it’s a deterrent, and I think there are better and more effective ways to deal with violent crime. We’ve done so in my own state.”

I won’t quite say that what we need is Michael Moore and Ann Coulter. But would Harold Meyerson and Charles Krauthammer, say, really be asking too much?

In any case, it would be nice to have at least the hope of something a bit eccentric. Surely one could scour the newsrooms and come up with an ink-stained wretch or two of the sort who had drunk long and deep from the waters of current events, enough to have a sense of proportion and of history and perhaps even of humor. Surely you could clean them up for the occasion, find in their closets an old suit grown dignified by sheer dint of shabby unfashionability. The result would not be polished or pretty, but it just might be interesting. I wonder what my old friend and colleague, the late great Woody West – newspaperman, Marine, Civil War enthusiast and belle lettrist – would have asked John Kerry and George W. Bush, given the chance. It would have been pungent, meticulously well-informed and difficult to evade, and above all it would have required a thoughtful reply. Or so I like to think.

If I had a question to put in this time, I think it might be along these lines:

“Mr. President, Mr. Kerry, you both come from backgrounds of extraordinary privilege. You both attended college at Yale, one of the most elite institutions in the nation. But that’s not all. You are both members of a Yale club called Skull and Bones, a kind of elite of the elite known for secret mumbo-jumbo as well as their subsequent positions of extraordinary prominence in American life. Are institutions like Skull and Bones – well, actually, there may not be another quite like Skull and Bones, but you get the idea – are these institutions that make such a point of exclusivity good for democracy in America or bad, and why or why not?”

Ideally, I’d like to get a recorded response from each of them, so that we could compare the result. Since that doesn’t work with the format, once one spoke, I’d turn to the other and ask, “You’ve heard Mr. X’s answer. Would you want your grandchild – well, I guess it would have to be a grandson – to be a member?”

Now, mind you, I am no conspiracy theorist, though I understand that to ask such a question is to risk stirring the alligators in the fever swamps the country over. That’s not the point. What I would like to hear in response (and ideally, I’d like to hear it from each of them simultaneously and separately, so that we could compare the result) is whether either would have the nerve to mount a defense of elite privilege, or on the contrary, to repudiate it. Good or bad for the grandkids, Mr. Bush, Mr. Kerry? You’re the ones who know the secrets, and no one is asking you to reveal them. Just to judge.

Maybe we’ll get lucky this year, and the questions and answers in the debates will give us a glimpse of what lies within. But that would be the exception. The rules are certainly designed to minimize that risk.