Well now, the chattering classes are all upset that Fred Thompson stiffed the GOP debate in New Hampshire for a spot with Jay Leno on "The Tonight Show."
“Campaigns should be more than 30-second ads,” New Hampshire GOP chairman Fergus Cullen said. “In New Hampshire, Republicans earn their votes by interacting with voters...I’m very disappointed that Fred Thompson deliberately scheduled his announcement in order to avoid this debate.”
National Review's David Freddoso asked Thompson's campaign directly: "Why did he opt to appear on a comedy show instead of coming to the presidential debate?
The answer is easy. These so-called debates are no less a joke than Leno's show. Difference is, Jay is funny. Candidates posturing for 40-second soundbites are not.
Seriously, do you really think we hear much in the way of substantial content at these exchanges? It's mostly about who looks best and who escapes without a visual metldown. Instead of thought-provoking questions followed by carefully reasoned answers, we get carefully scripted soundbites from candidates terrified of screwing up.
I'm not blaming the candidates--they're only doing what they must to get elected. My beef is with the medium of television itself. As Neil Postman points out in Amusing Ourselves to Death, television news--though it presents itself as serious content--is really about entertainment. The candidates know this. They're being judged as entertainers, not leaders. Instead of asking who sounded most reasonable, the big question of the night is who looked most presidential?
Lincoln sure didn't in his day. The American people learned about him by listening to (and reading about) his seven-hour and later three-hour debates with Douglas. Each man spoke in language that would be largely incomprehensible to a television audience in 2007. That's the difference between a book culture and an image-based one.
In short, in a culture whose primary epistemology is television, why not announce your bid for the world's most serious job on a joke show?
It's no more of one than the debate was...with a ton more viewers.