Late in the first night of debates featuring the candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination, the quizmaster went to the lightning round.
“It’s a simple question,” NBC’s Chuck Todd told the seven men and three women on the stage in Miami on Wednesday. “What is our – what is the biggest threat– what is – (not so simple) who is the geopolitical threat to the United States? Just give me a one-word answer.”
The candidates were to answer in turn. After the one-word rule was ignored by the first four, the quizmaster butted in . “Try to keep it at one word – slimmer(slimmer?) than what we’ve been going here. One or two words.”
Is it one word or two, Chuck?
Didn’t matter. The politicians were irrepressible.
The debate stage, with its moody blue decorations, looked like a set for a TV game show, an open audition for the long line of aspiring contestants.
All it needed was a buzzer on each podium, like Jeopardy, so the candidate with the fastest reflexes could field the question first.
It is a show, after all. And that’s the way it’s been presented since CBS aired the first televised U.S. presidential debate – Kennedy versus Nixon – in 1960.
My online pal, media historian Michael Socolow, a former assignment editor at CNN , now professor of journalism at the University of Maine, posted this timely reminder on Twitter:
When CBS’s Frank Stanton designed the modern TV political debate, he wanted the quiz show model. It’s not about actually learning information you need for governance by an informed citizenry.
It’s about entertaining television. That’s it.”
Wednesday night was hardly entertaining. But Todd seemed to be having a good time.
“All right,” the quizmaster said after the lightning round. “Well, thank you for that wide variety of answers – and I mean that. No, I mean that in – that’s what this debate is about. This is the best part of a debate like this.”
No, thank you Chuck, for praising your participation, for oozing sincerity when you aren’t being an obnoxious smarty-pants.
Todd may have felt emboldened facing a stage full of courteous humans a few days after being buried under a blizzard of boorish bullshit from the beast that prowls the White House.
Agent Orange watched the debate on Air Force One, en route to see his Russian handler at the G20 summit in Japan. He tweeted that the live event was fake news.
Todd, meanwhile, enjoyed his Wednesday lightning round so much he introduced two of them for the ten candidates debating on Thursday night.
First, he gave a long and torturous preamble to the question: What is the first issue you would address as president?
In the end, gave the candidates a “C-minus” for their succinctness.
Sure, Chuck, the quizmaster gets to grade the former vice president of the United States, four U.S. senators, a congressman, a former governor, a rising-star mayor (and two nice people nobody ever heard of.)
The second lightning round – Double Jeopardy? – was on how the president after Trump – assuming he ever leaves and the Earth is still spinning – repairs the damage Putin’s puppet has done to Washington’s relations with traditional allies.
“Thanks for the quickness,” he complimented the response from a young fellow named Yang.
Soon after this trivial exercise, the questioner who never challenged Trump again patronized the prestigious gathering of candidates. “All right, guys (guys?), the good news is you get more time to talk but I have to sneak in one more break.”
Todd was one of five NBC inquisitors who peppered the Democrats with Republican talking points: On whether they were socialists, would take away people’s guns, all the tried-and-true GOP bullshit that is always tried and never true.
On the second night, however, the candidates managed to sporadically seize control, allowing for some real debate, highlighted by the impressive Kamala Harris kicking ass.
She provided the most memorable moments of the four hours over two days.
Yet I was still left with the aftertaste of Todd’s obnoxiousness.
As host of Meet the Press for the past five years, he’s appeared to work really hard to tell the viewer: I’m really smart… I know stuff … I’m an insider, a player, not just some kid who walked in off the street and swiped the chair of the sainted Tim Russert… Not just the snarky guy with the Van Dyke beard and the Julius Caesar hairdo.
His debate performance reminded me of a fictional TV anchorman who wanted to be a quizmaster.
In a 1975 episode of the Mary Tyler Moore Show, Ted Baxter is about to leave WJM-Minneapolis to host a game show in New York called the 50,000 Dollar Steeplechase.
But his boss, Lou Grant, despite years of aggravation with Ted’s ignorance and incompetence, talks him into staying.
He starts with: “Is that what you want people to say when you walk down the street, ‘There’s goes Ted Baxter – he’s a quizmaster’” – and glides into a long speech about serving the public by broadcasting the truth.
“You’re a newsman, Ted,” he keeps repeating.
Finally, Ted agrees to stay.
“I’m a newsman, aren’t I, Lou, a newsman.”
“Yes, Ted, you’re a newsman.”
“And a darn good one too.”
“I never said that.”