Friday, August 13, 2004

Updated August 13, 2004 at 1:45 pm

Democratic Senate Candidate Barack Obama, with all of that political talent, is unwilling to agree to more than one TV debate with his opponent, Republican Senate Candidate Alan Keyes. Who would have thunk it?

Writing two days after the Democratic U. S. Senate Candidate Primary in Illinos, I wrote, in this blog, about Democratic U. S. Senate Candidate Barack Obama:

Barack Obama is an unbelievably talented human being. He so overwhelms you with his articulateness that you fail to see his charm. Or, he so overwhelms you with his quick grasp of the crowd and its tone that you fail to see his substance. Or, he so overwhelms you with his substance that you fail to see his ability to connect. On and on it goes. Just when you think you know the breadth and depth of the guy, he pulls out something new.
Of course, none of this has to do with whether I agree or disagree with Barack’s philosophy, ideology, proposals or programs to make this a better society. But, it has everything to do with whether voters in the Democratic Party agree with Barack on these items, and more importantly, whether they like the fact that their nominee for the U. S. Senate is fluent in the world of ideas.

“Public Affairs,” blog archives, March 18, 2004. ** *************************************************
Fast Forward to this week’s debate on debates. Apparently, Obama is going to “tough it out,” and play the debate about debates just like any other pol would. Forget the stuff above about talents, charm, fluency in ideas, etc. Forget the stuff about Barack being a different kind of politician-- about transcending politics. Barack is opting for following Mayor Daley's guy, David Axelrod, and being a pol.

That is, Barack will assume the press will drop the issue of his intellectual slight of hand when Barack argues that 6 debates was an offer to Jack Ryan in June. He can’t possibly do six televised debates in 12 weeks with Alan Keyes—How could Obama find the time, Obama argues—and the media are supposed to believe and report that, with hardly any tough questioning about it. Barack will follow his handlers’ advice and play it safe, just like any other pol.

WTTW’s Elizabeth Brackett reported last night, on Chicago Tonight, that Obama wants three debates and Alan Keyes wants six. Well, not quite, Elizabeth. Alan Keyes wants six TV debates and Barack Obama wants one TV debate.

Barack is fudging even more than Elizabeth Brackett suggests. Brackett tells us that one of the three Obama accepted debates is a radio debate on WBBM- AM radio. I assume such a debate would be moderated by Craig Dellimore of WBBM’s “At Issue” and CBS-2’s Political Editor Mike Flannery, both of whom are very fair political journalists who know the issues extremely well. And, I would love to hear that debate—but radio is not TV—not nearly the visibility and reach, so to speak. The WBBM radio debate and other radio debates, e.g., WBEZ, Chicago Public Radio, with 848's Steve Edwards moderating and Carlos Hernandez Gomez joining Edwards in the questioning, should supplement the TV debates, not substitute for them. So, now Barack is down to two TV debates?

Well, not quite. Brackett reported that one of the two TV debates will be handled by her public television station--WTTW. Well, no problem there. When the producers, handlers, or whatever you call those folks at WTTW who think they know more about public policy than Phil Ponce will leave Phil Ponce alone, as they apparently did at the Blagojevich- Jim Ryan gubernatorial debate, or at the U. S. Senate candidate primary debates, Ponce is very good—and I assume the WTTW handlers will let Phil Ponce do his thing with Obama-Keyes. So, that is one TV debate for Obama-Keyes.

However, Brackett reported that the other TV debate that the Obama campaign had accepted was from ABC-7 in Chicago. Traditionally, ABC-7 teams up with the League of Women Voters to put forward the worse possible format for a debate. The candidates stand side by side, like stiffs, and take turns answering the same question, with perhaps a canned opening and closing statement. The questions put forth are the worst.

ABC-7 has a smart, talented, informed political correspondent Andy Shaw. Shaw, based on what I have seen in the short spots he is given for political reporting, would be very fair and appears to have the ability to moderate such a debate, ask tough questions and guide an interactive discussion between Keyes-Obama. But, for inexplicable reasons, ABC-7 turns elsewhere.

In the Democratic U. S. Senate Candidate Primary Ch. 7 “Debate,” held earlier this year in March, the League/ABC apparently decided that most of the questions should come from audience members who represent ethnic voting blocks, e.g., an Asian group, an Hispanic group, etc. Not exactly the way to get the fairest and most challenging questions about public policy. As I wrote in March, “the Democratic Senate candidates were invited to a so-called Ch. 7, League of Women Voters Debate. Knowing as we all did that the format was designed to cure anyone suffering from insomnia…”

It is hard to know what to call the ABC-7 get together, but surely it is not a debate. So, there you have it, Democratic Senate Candidate Barack Obama, the multi-faceted political talent who stepped onto the national stage a few weeks ago to such applause is unwilling to do more than one televised debate with his Republican Senate Candidate opponent, Alan Keyes. And, the mainstream media, having raised it with Obama once or twice, will now give him a pass.

Of course, when the topic was sex clubs-- with Jack Ryan, the media couldn’t get enough of that issue and would not let Ryan change the topic. But, when it is truly about-- as the Chicago Tribune put it in a far different context “The Public’s Right to Know,” the media say—“Okay, one editorial, a few questions, we tried-- time to move on.” Now, Barack, you were saying about that big news endorsement from the Chicago police…

Jeff Berkowitz, Host and Producer of “Public Affairs,” can be reached at