NOW THAT was a debate.
What a difference it makes when both candidates show up to play. Bill Clinton was controlled, focused, and ingratiating. Bob Dole was quick, prepared, and aggressive. The moderator was discreet. The audience raised interesting topics. It was the most absorbing presidential debate since Reagan-Mondale in 1984, and everyone involved in it -- except for the rude audience member at the end who posed the only disrespectful question of the night -- deserves to take a bow.
True, it wasn't Lincoln-Douglas. It wasn't even Nixon-Kennedy. But by the standards of this political season, it was informed, thoughtful, and elevated. From racial quotas to tax cuts, from the drawbacks of "managed care" to the propriety of prayer in public school, Dole and Clinton repeatedly came down on opposite sides of the political spectrum. It is hard to imagine that any voter could just now be tuning in to the presidential race; but if such a voter were watching last night, he got an admirable summary of what's at stake in this election.
For a year or more, it has been painful to watch Dole struggle to express himself. Suddenly, with less than three weeks until Election Day and way too late to change the outcome, the inarticulate stutterer became the majority leader. He had facts and figures at his fingertips, and he deployed them coherently and aptly. Perhaps the knowledge that he is to be hanged in a fortnight has concentrated his mind wonderfully. Perhaps he had a better debate coach the second time around.
Or perhaps he finally realized why he wants to beat this incumbent.
"Honor, duty and country -- that's what America is all about," said Dole near the end. The president of the United States -- the man who occupies "the most important office in the world" -- ought to be a model of ethical behavior. "And when you have some 30 members of your administration who've either left or are being investigated or are in jail . . . you've got an ethical problem."
The Clinton administration is dishonest and disgraceful: That's the reason to vote for Dole. "If I have anything in politics," the Kansan said in the last major performance of his career, "it's my word." He should have said it in Hartford. He should have been saying it all along.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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