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TV Review

The Making of a President

What exactly is it that tempts people to stay up until four o'clock in the morning to watch Presidential debates? In the United States they only have to stay up until ten or eleven o'clock, and that is bad enough. Over here BBC News 24 obviously decided to target insomniac political junkies with its coverage of the three US Presidential debates between Al Gore and George W. Bush, and the Vice-Presidential debate between Joe Lieberman and Dick Cheney.

While most viewers in the UK were counting sheep, it became apparent soon enough to those that weren't that the Democrats in the US were clearly counting on George Bush to win them the election. Each debate was preceded by commentators anticipating that Bush would render the US public senseless with laughter through his propensity for malapropisms, mispronunciation and periodic fits of verbal madness. Newscasters even referred viewers to the existence of a web site run by the Democratic Party called Bush Lite, where the Republican candidate's verbal contortions are on parade for everyone to see. But on each occasion the hopes of the Gore campaign, the TV commentators (and much of the audience, presumably) were dashed as Bush succeeded in mimicking his opponent's legendary capacity for soporific oratory, with barely a misplaced syllable.

Not once did Bush tell Americans, as he had done previously, that they “ought to make the pie higher”, nor did he encourage parents to protect their children from foul language on TV by “turning the 'off' button on”. And neither—luckily—did he, as on a previous occasion when railing against trade barriers, conflate the two words and promise to knock-down “terriers”. Instead, just like his opponent, he was the typical politician—staid but with a folksy edge to give him the necessary “common touch”, evidently overly-ambitious, in possession of a highly selective memory and with an in-built propensity to be economical with the truth at every given opportunity. It was no wonder everyone was waiting for him to slip up.

A Gore draw
There would not, of course, be much justification for the BBC to show this spectacle at all if the pretence wasn't maintained that there was some real difference between the contenders and that something of importance was at stake. If it was just knockabout stuff and comedy people were after, they could have scheduled it with all the other left-field and experimental stuff on BBC Choice. Instead, the coverage had to be justified in some way, although it is doubtful whether the BBC made a terribly good job of this aspect of it. The two political analysts it had hired for immediate post-debate discussion were, naturally enough, a staunch Democrat and a strong Republican. Naturally too, they were both academics. The sting in the tail was that they happened to be married to each other. Quite why the BBC chose to pick this couple is anyone's guess but it simply had the effect of reinforcing the very attitude that the BBC was trying to disabuse its viewers of—that there was no major disagreements between the two camps and that the only differences in existence were superficial and cosmetic. Wives and husbands may not agree about everything but this couple certainly created a subliminal image of unity beneath a façade of disagreement (to get a real handle on this, when it comes to marriages between political animals rather than the only vaguely committed, how many dyed-in-the-wool socialists are contentedly married to raving fascists?).

The truth, of course, is that in its coverage the BBC was probably on a hiding to nothing anyway. Few people in Britain have ever taken US elections seriously and they do not show any sign of changing. What is interesting – and what the BBC's coverage didn't quite bring out as it might have done – are the parallels between politics in the US and politics as it is now becoming in Britain and many other parts of the Western world. This is a politics based not on differences of ideology, whether real or imagined, but the politics of competing managerial teams. Gore and Bush were like two putative chief executives invited before the board to give their presentations and to expose the other's perceived weaknesses.

Gore versus Bush was a precursor to what Blair versus Hague will be like if ever such a debate takes place at the next election over here (something which is certainly possible, though at this stage, still unlikely). It will be—as the BBC billed the Presidential debates to be—a battle between gladiators. But they will be, again like their American counterparts, gladiators without a purpose, veritable “soldiers of fortune”, political mercenaries high on ambition but woefully low on content.