Clouds Rearrange Like the Talk of the Town


The best previews of tonight's Obama-McCain town hall debate are John Dickerson's and Jack Shafer's over at Slate. Shafer makes the important point that strict rules are going to prevent tonight's slugfest into becoming a true town hall, the kind that both candidates have, alternately, excelled and gaffed at. Dickerson points out that the town halls can make a dumb campaign dumber by the inclusion of people who don't want to hear anything mean.

"Ponytail Guy" is the term some in political circles use to refer to Denton Walthall, who asked a question in the second presidential debate in 1992. A domestic mediator who worked with children, Walthall scolded President George H.W. Bush for running a mudslinging, character-based campaign against Bill Clinton in 1992. Referring to voters as "symbolically the children of the future president," he asked how voters could expect the candidates "to meet our needs, the needs in housing and in crime and you name it, as opposed to the wants of your political spin doctors and your political parties. … Could we cross our hearts? It sounds silly here but could we make a commitment? You know, we're not under oath at this point, but could you make a commitment to the citizens of the U.S. to meet our needs—and we have many—and not yours again?"

Since the McCain campaign wants us to be thinking about Billy Ayers right now, and the Obama campaign wants you to meditate on Charles Keating, there's a buzz in the air: Will one of the candidates go for a character attack? And the experience of the town hall debate is that, no, that stuff won't work. Here's what Bush said in 1992 that riled up Waithall.

The other night Governor Clinton raised my—I don't know if you saw the debate the other night. You did—suffered through that? Well, he raised the question of my father—it was a good line, well rehearsed and well delivered. But he raised the question of my father and said, well, your father, Prescott Bush, was against McCarthy, you should be ashamed of yourself, McCarthyism. I remember something my dad told me—I was 18 years old going to Penn Station to go on into the Navy, and he said write your mother—which I faithfully did; he said serve your country—my father was an honor, duty and country man; and he said tell the truth. And I've tried to do that in public life, all through it. That says something about character.

My argument with Governor Clinton—you can call it mud wrestling, but I think it's fair to put in focus is—I am deeply troubled by someone who demonstrates and organizes demonstration in a foreign land when his country's at war. Probably a lot of kids here disagree with me. But that's what I feel. That's what I feel passionately about. I'm thinking of Ross Perot's running mate sitting in the jail. How would he feel about it? But maybe that's generational. I don't know.

See? Just doesn't work in a format where sad-eyed, Jeff Koons-drawn voters are whimpering about how mean you are.