Maybe it's a sign of American content. No issue presses into our consciousness so strongly that it overshadows our view of politics this year as mere theater.
The more we hear about campaign strategies, the less we accept a candidate's beliefs. The more we hear from "operatives," the less faith we have in a candidate's leadership.
If we think that the presidential candidates today are small, maybe it is not just because we see them up close and personal on a 19-inch screen. It may also be because every day we observe the directors and producers, and hear what they are trying to accomplish with this scene and that line.
Even this live debate carried the subtext of the whole 1988 campaign: Pay no attention to the man in front of the curtain.
BUSH, THE WINNER
It was a close match, but in watching Sunday night's bloodless affray between George Bush and Michael Dukakis, I scored it 12-8 for Bush. The vice president came across as a man who pays a decent respect to Rule Six, this being the maxim that goes as follows: Don't take yourself too damn seriously.
Dukakis may have a sense of humor, but it hasn't been visible thus far. The gentleman is Very Serious. He is also very composed and very articulate. He is very almost everything, but he is not very appealing. Dukakis has a way of smiling with his mouth but not with his eyes. Like a poorly thawed sweet roll, he is still frozen in the middle.
The questions put to the candidates Sunday evening were familiar questions. They brought familiar answers. Nothing new developed, but most of the viewers probably had as little interest in Great Issues as they have in Great Books.
My impression was that Bush looked sure of himself, and Dukakis looked too sure of himself. Bush exhibited the mature confidence of a man who is not afraid to kid an institution: "Is it time for our one-liners?" Dukakis got off his prepared jabs with the ease of a Johnny Carson who has memorized his midnight monologue. Bush was better.
Sunday evening did nothing to dispel the uneasy feeling that Dukakis, as president, would be playing out of his league. This was the problem that Jimmy Carter never surmounted. He could hit a curve ball in Atlanta; he couldn't hit it up here. Now he's back in the minors.
The next time Dukakis may seem more impressive, but alas for his team, fewer people will be watching.
James J. Kilpatrick
DUKAKIS, THE WINNER
A debate can tell you something, and this one told you what you already knew. Dukakis was organized, logical - coldly competent. Bush was rambling and occasionally tongue-tied. He was at his best when defending or asserting the successes of the Reagan administration. Where he was worst was when he had to explain his own ideology. It was then that he hit low.
The politician who has nothing to say attempts to label. That was the Bush tactic. Repeatedly, he tried to paint Dukakis as a raging liberal when, as anyone can see, Dukakis is not a raging anything. He attempted to characterize him as an elitist - an updating of the loathesome 1950s attack on ''eggheads." That was the intent of the Boston crack - a low blow gone awry. Doubtless, Bush meant to say "Cambridge," the home of Harvard and not of the police department that recently endorsed him. He put his tongue on the wrong side of the Charles River.
Dukakis, too, has his inconsistencies. As Bush pointed out, he once called the "Star-Wars" program a "fraud and a fantasy" and now supports continuing research. But the Massachusetts governor is more at home with
himself than Bush is. All along, the vice president has had difficulty defining himself, which is why he tries so hard to define his opponent. In the ring, a low blow can cost a round. In political debates, it's no different. Bush lost this one.
THE PRESS, THE LOSER
On the morning after "The Great Debate," which actually was a pretty good one, the Wall Street Journal began its report by indicating nothing much happened. "Dukakis took the offensive at the very start," the paper said, ''hammering away at many of his standard criticisms of Bush and the Reagan administration."
The New York Times yawned a bit, too, saying, "The vice president argued repeatedly that the Massachusetts governor lacked Mr. Bush's own experience." On NBC, correspondent Tom Pettit was asked about Bush's style and substance and he hesitated for a perplexed second before saying, "Well, Bush was Bush."
It was only "standard" and "repeatedly" if you had begun following these two guys a year ago in Iowa. But only political reporters did that. One of the fault lines in coverage of American presidential politics is that the press is out-of-sync with public interest at the beginning of the long campaigns. We often do our best work when the public isn't watching. Now, when most Americans are finally beginning to pay attention, most of the press is tired and bored - and more than a little cynical.
Too bad - because my guess is that this joint appearance was the key event of the campaign. And I also think Dukakis was probably the big winner. Win or lose, the little governor looked and sounded good enough to pass the presidential threshold.
Presidential campaigns have always been dramas of character. But when parties were stronger, peer judgment counted. And character could be reliably evaluated, on the basis of first-hand observation, by colleagues and intimates without whose approval (or acquiescence, at least) few candidates ever advanced very far toward the White House.
The real question after the Winston-Salem encounter is not who "won," a question as subjective as the altitude of "up." It is why voters would care. By the evidence of voter turnout, fewer and fewer do. But as of Jan. 20, one of these two prisoners of media politics will be president. What they do then will matter, even if their answers now largely don't.
Edwin M. YoderJr.