Upcoming election makes for compelling TV

WEDNESDAY NIGHT MARKS the end of the fall’s most successful primetime show — a string of live events known as “The Debates.” Despite mostly negative reviews, it really hasn’t been as boring as you might infer from all the griping about how this limited series failed to meet the dramatic standards expected by an audience weaned on “Survivor.”

The consensus is the debates thus far haven’t yielded the big moments we remember from the past (ignoring how rare genuine fireworks actually were), such as Lloyd Bentsen telling Dan Quayle, “You’re no Jack Kennedy,” or Ronald Reagan promising not to exploit Walter Mondale’s “youth and inexperience.” Last time, Republican John McCain joked about needing hair transplants, which is generally not something a 72-year-old candidate should emphasize. Latenight host Conan O’Brien joked that the debate was so boring and uninteresting, “It’s been picked up as a fall series by NBC.”

Yet even eliminating the near-hysteria that preceded (and the disappointment that followed) the vice-presidential showdown after the sense of unpredictability created by Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin’s “Look out! She’s working without a TelePrompTer!” pre-debate interviews, these forums have proved enlightening in areas where they matter most as TV spectacle — those illustrating style rather than substance.

POLITICAL ANALYSTS LOVE using sports metaphors, but boxing terminology about “going toe to toe” and “counterpunching” has been unusually appropriate in examining the two previous presidential debates, which bring to mind the classic fights pitting Muhammad Ali against Joe Frazier.

Like Ali, Barack Obama is smooth and fluid — delivering jabs while dancing just outside his opponent’s reach. Ahead on most scoring cards, he’s clearly been content to “win” on points. McCain, by contrast, resembles Frazier, who was shorter and less artful, relentlessly boring in, probing for weakness, needing to administer a knockout blow.

The analogy breaks down only in the concept of how the bruiser can emerge victorious, which explains the frustration exhibited by McCain supporters and surrogates in evaluating the earlier debates. Because while McCain can swing wildly the way a desperate fighter might — thus heightening the risk of walking face-first into a punch himself — whether you connect in this arena has more to do with your opponent providing an opening than simply getting lucky. So far, Obama has been too sure-footed to let that happen — indeed, so polished he’s even a poor target for latenight satirists.

In an interview with HBO’s Bill Maher following the first contest, Chris Rock quipped, “It’s what my father used to say: ‘You can’t beat white people. You can only knock them out.’ There’s no such thing as a decision (from) the judges with white people.”

Funny, but Obama has done just that — floating like a butterfly and taking no chances, allowing McCain to flail away without inflicting any serious damage.

Actual fights can be unpredictable, whereas two candidates who have spent this long campaigning are difficult to knock off message. In that context it’s no wonder that even the VP debate didn’t live down to the anticipation fostered by Palin’s mixed-verbal arts tuneup bouts with Charles Gibson and Katie Couric.

SO WHAT HAPPENS NOW? Even before Obama and McCain’s final faceoff, pundits are already racing ahead to contemplate the Democrat’s triumph. Oxford professor Timothy Garton Ash, for example, theorized in the Los Angeles Times that Obama’s election “may spell the beginning of the end” of the culture war, leading toward greater harmony among those with “different faiths, value systems and lifestyles.”

Such talk about deflating partisanship, however, is almost quaint in its naivete, given the robust industry — talkradio, websites, cable news — devoted to stoking the embers of fear and animosity into an eternal flame. Whatever the outcome in November, these forces will battle onward, with voting results representing little more than hiccup — a longer-than-usual break between rounds. For them, any fight is merely the prelude to demanding a rematch.

Nevertheless, viewed properly “The Debates” has offered the sort of stark contrast in styles that can render wonky discourse about tax policy mildly interesting. Perhaps that’s why, as series go, “John & Barack” (or “Sarah & Joe”) sure beats the heck out of “Kath & Kim.”

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