Stop Beating around the Bush

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KCRW, I'm Nick Madigan of The Baltimore Sun with Minding the Media.

Ever since John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon squared off in the first televised debate in 1960, the format has been consistent, predictable and, very often, tedious.

A moderator made the introductions and explained the rules, and a panel of somber, experienced journalists asked the questions.

Candidates learned to rehearse the occasional knock-out line just to keep things lively and stand out in viewers' memories.

Last night, though, we saw the dawn of a new age in candidates' debates. CNN paired up with YouTube and delivered an unprecedented modern-day political discourse featuring videotaped questions posed by ordinary (and not so ordinary) people around the country.

Those of you who didn't see it missed a vigorous, sometimes funny, and very direct interrogation by YouTube users who, above all, demanded that the candidates be straightforward with their answers.

Or, as the first questioner said, stop "beating around the Bush."

Debates will never be the same again. Once you've let real citizens' voices in, it's going to be hard to keep them out. All those reporters who were anticipating a career-boosting spot on a debate panel will probably have to settle for second fiddle.

To their credit, CNN and YouTube exploited the full range of characters who submitted questions, one of them a lady dressed like a chicken, another an animated snowman. There was a wacko holding what looked like an AK-47, which he called his "baby," and a lesbian couple who asked whether the candidates, if elected, would let them get married.

The questioners could not hide behind anonymity, as many people who blog or post Internet comments do. But one, from San Juan, Puerto Rico, evidently slipped by CNN's filters. He gave his name as Fulano del Tal, which, with a slight variation in spelling, is the Spanish equivalent of John Doe.

Some of the questions were highly original. For example: As president, would you agree to be paid only minimum wage? Are the U.S. troops in Iraq dying in vain? Is all this talk about Al Gore entering the race hurting your feelings? Define "liberal." Should African-Americans be paid reparations for slavery?

Prodded by moderator Anderson Cooper, the candidates handled most of the questions fairly directly, although Mike Gravel came off as a hothead no matter what the subject. But then he usually does.

The no-frills format worked well for Joe Biden, who should by now be driving John McCain's Straight-Talk Express.

Bill Richardson looked nervous, and John Edwards seemed to be trying mighty hard to score points against the front runners, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Those two looked at ease, as befits leaders of the pack, and politely snarled at each other.

Chris Dodd and Dennis Kucinich, at the bottom end of the polls, were forceful, but you wonder whether they're wasting their time.

Each of the candidates had been asked to submit a YouTube-style video of their own, and their offerings were a telling indication of who among them is most comfortable in the YouTube world.

The best came from Edwards. He self-deprecatingly mocked the controversy over his $400 haircut by assembling a montage of sobering images like New Orleans after Katrina, Bush's "Mission Accomplished" banner and troops at war in Iraq, set to the boisterous title song of the musical Hair.

It concluded with the question: "What really matters? You choose."

When asked to share what they liked and didn't like about each other, Biden called it a "ridiculous exercise," and most of the others resorted to empty platitudes.

John Edwards, though, looked at Hillary Clinton's salmon-colored coat and said, "I don't know about that jacket."

Clinton missed a golden opportunity. She should have replied, "I don't know about that hair."

This is Nick Madigan of The Baltimore Sun, Minding the Media on KCRW.



Nick Madigan