Sunday, October 06, 2002

The Great Memphis Debate

There have been several debates between the two main gubernatorial candidates so far, and so far the major broadcast media in Memphis have declined to carry any of it. It's been a real shame for them to put profit and programming ahead of their legal, civic duty. But that's slowly changing as Election Day approaches.

NewsChannel Three hosted a Bredesen/Hilleary debate Sunday afternoon. It wasn't anything new or unexpected. Both candidates has locked in their positions and are either repeating them, or lobbing potshots at the other. In fact, they could've just left their stump speeches for moderator Jerry Tate to read and it would've been about the same result.

I failed to take any notes, so only some general observations.

Hilleary, like Bush 43, benefits from the advance newspaper criticisms of the lack of intellectual depth he purportedly has. He was, as the papers have now taken to saying in response, surprisingly facile and sharp. Still, he has the bland, anonymous good looks of most modern politicians and that makes him come off the same way.

Bredesen had some bizarre up-and-down thing going on. Even though both candidates were seated behind separate, large tables they were clearly intended to sit behind, Bredesen kept getting up to give his answers. The first time, he was uncomfortable and awkward doing it. Then he just seemed to stick with the example he set. Until the question-each-other segment, when he only rose occasionally. It was strange.

Moderator Jerry Tate was a pleasure. Rumors of his ego are rampant, but he was transparent in the debates and kept to his function.

The panelists were as expected. NewsChannel Three provided the pompous Norm Brewer, who was (if you've seen is little editorials on the 4:30 news) predictably ... pompous! Debate co-sponsor MPACT ( a Memphis organisation of politically active young professionals) provided Nicole Lacey. She kept her questions to business and the economy. Job well done.

And the Commercial Appeal loaned out Paula Wade and not the expected Susan Adler Thorp. Her first two questions were both about TennCare. In fact, her first question was so convoluted and crowded that Hilleary wasn't sure what the question was! She had an annoying habit of briefly looking at both candidates as she read her question from her notes, and not addressing either candidate directly. It seemed like some kind of test on her part. Were they sharp enough, paying enough attention, to figure out who she was talking to?

TennCare is really Wade's hobby horse. During the post-debate news coverage by NewsChannel Three she made it clear that she was testing them on their knowledge, and their understanding of and plans for, TennCare. Wade even went so far as to say, with a smiling straight face, that TennCare has already been reformed and is therefore not in need of touching. It was a stunning, telling moment. I can't wait to see what editorial she spins from this.

Both candidates made a point of mentioning Memphis concerns. Bredesen called Memphis International Airport the "engine" of the Memphis economy. Hilleary, however, scored the best on that. When Bredesen tried to question Hilleary's commitment to education by claiming that he chased after Education Secretary Ron Paige whenever he was within five hundred miles of Tennessee, Hilleary related the story of meeting Paige for the first time at a lack-luster political event at the Peabody Hotel. He offered to take Paige to the Rendevous Restaurant for ribs in exchange for learning more about Paige's educational reform successes in Houston. Paige took him up on it and they've been friends ever since. The story not only left Bredesen looking bad, but proved Hilleary actually knew Memphis! Imagine having the Secretary of Education as a friend when you're Governor! Bredesen tried to spin it back, pointing out that Hilleary tried to abolish the Department of Education, but it was too late.

Bredesen also tried to nail him on a vote against funding for the Civil Rights Museum. Again, Hilleary got out of it by bluntly admitting he had made a mistake and learned his lesson.

Overall, it wasn't compelling politics. But it was a pleasant way to pass an hour.

Until next time.

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