The party's over. The streamers and confetti have been swept up (at least metaphorically). The Democrats have all gone home. Charleston does seem rather dull since the Great Debate, doesn't it?
The eyes of the nation — at least those cable watchers who were tuned to CNN — were on The Citadel campus Monday last for the Democratic candidates' debate. I'm still not sure what to make of the event, and I doubt that I could write anything that hasn't been written at least a dozen times. From my seat in the far upper reaches of McAlister Field House, the candidates looked like ants on the stage down below. It was hard to believe that one of those tiny creatures would soon be the President of the United States and Leader of the Free World.
YouTube questions were put to the candidates by CNN anchor Anderson Cooper, clearly a gambit to pull in the younger viewers. If it worked, perhaps it was worth the silliness and distraction. Perhaps. But speaking as an old fart, I can remember when the three broadcast networks carried presidential candidate debates and most of the adult population of the nation tuned in to watch boring old journalists ask the questions.
Was the YouTube process more democratic than the boring-old-journalist method of conducting a debate? Again, perhaps. The people asking the questions looked ordinary enough — if that is the measure of democracy. But to submit a question through YouTube, you had to possess both the technology and internet skills, and this is a circumscription that would tend to skew questioners toward the young and the educated. Of the more than 3,000 questions submitted to YouTube by the American public, only about 40 were selected for broadcast by officials at CNN. Who elected them?
Did the YouTube questions keep the eight Democratic candidates any more honest and on topic than traditional journalists asking questions? Hardly. They managed to dodge questions and change the subject when it suited and there were no journalists on hand — unless you count Anderson Cooper — to pin them down with follow-up questions. On several occasions Cooper admonished candidates to stick to the question. He might as well have told them to stop taking corporate campaign contributions.
The next debate will be the Republicans in Florida, again with YouTube fans asking the questions. The ten White Guys seeking the GOP presidential nomination have been reduced to nine with the withdrawal of former Virginia Gov. James Gilmore. Still, it will be a stage full of candidates, trying to act candid while revealing as little of themselves as possible to the American public. Should make for riveting television.
In a town widely famous for its hospitality and good manners, there was little of either in view while the Democrats were here. The Republicans made sure of that. Of course, all is fair in love and politics and no one expected the GOP to offer their rivals the key to the city. Still, you wonder how much they spent to have the airplane circle The Citadel on the afternoon of the debate trailing the banner with the message "WWW.STOPHERNOW.COM." Hillary Clinton should have been flattered by the attention.
Talk is a lot cheaper, and there was plenty of it coming from Republican flacks. Charleston County GOP Chairwoman Lin Bennett told The Post and Courier, "This is Republican Country and their sort of sticking their face in our face — at a military training facility, no less — just fires people up more than anything." I guess that was supposed to be an ironic poke in the eye on Bennett's part. Did she see any irony in having a couple of Vietnam chicken hawks — George W. Bush and Dick Cheney by name — making a needless and brutal war in Iraq?
The irony continued on the day after the debate, when Bush himself came to town. While visiting Charleston Air Force Base, he declared "...that the best way to protect Americans is to go on the offense, to fight terrorists overseas so we don't have to face them here at home."
That's exactly what the government used to tell us about Vietnam — that if that remote little country were to fall to the commies, then we would have to fight communists on the beaches at San Diego. South Vietnam fell to the communist forces, to be sure, but not a single enemy soldier showed up on American shores. If Bush had not been AWOL from his comfortable rear echelon duties in the Air National Guard during that long-ago war, he might have known that. But Bush — and Republicans generally — seem to have no more sense of history than they have sense of irony.