Tonight, on “60 Minutes,” history will be made. An ex-president, Bill Clinton, and his old rival, ex-senator Bob Dole, will begin a stint as point-counterpoint debaters.
Andy Warhol got it wrong. It’s not fame everyone will have in the future; it’s a chance to scream at someone on TV.
The liberals already do it to the conservatives on CNN and Fox. Celebrities do it with Bill Maher on HBO. Ebert used to do it to Siskel, and now he does it to Roeper.
So why not Clinton versus Dole? Because it’s unseemly? Well, it’s true, I can’t imagine Lyndon Johnson and Barry Goldwater squaring off on “Dick Cavett.” But those were different times. What’s unseemly anymore?
“I’ll pick the subject one show; he’ll pick it the next,” Dole told me last week. “I’ll get 45 seconds. He’ll get 45 seconds. Then I rebut, then he rebuts, and that’s it.”
He chuckled. “That’s if he stays within his time limit.”
Dole and Clinton make a perfect pair. One never got to say what he really wanted, and the other never wanted to stop talking.
“It’s a chance for me to learn some new skills,” Clinton said, when asked about self-editing. “As you get older, you should master new things.”
“I know this,” Dole said, “if we screw up, it’ll be Hillary and Elizabeth the following week.”
Hey. These guys should take it on the road.
A civilized debate
Now, regular TV viewers should be warned: Compared with what you usually see, Clinton-Dole will be as tame as a turtle. They won’t interrupt. They won’t call names. One won’t tell the other to go live in a foreign country. No punches will be thrown.
“When you get a little older and you get out of politics,” Dole said, “you’re not as harsh about things. You don’t feel obligated to see things strictly along party lines.”
In fact, Clinton was often more centrist than left wing. And Dole, in recent years, has been a voice of reason and unification — as well as Viagra and Pepsi.
Which leads me to this question: what happens if they . . . agree?
You see, I know a bit about TV debates. I do them weekly on ESPN. And I used to do a point-counterpoint with Bernie Smilovitz, the fine sportscaster from Channel 4 in Detroit. Many weeks, Bernie and I honestly disagreed. But sometimes, we hit a quagmire of ambivalence.
“You want to take ‘pro’?” he’d ask.
“Nah, I want con. You do pro.”
“OK. But next week, I get dibs.”
Of course, this was on relatively minor matters, such as who the Lions should draft or which of us had the worse haircut. I’d hate to think the same thing happens on “60 Minutes.” CLINTON: Say, Bob, I’m sort of torn on this whole missile thing. DOLE: Me, too. CLINTON: Can you argue “No More Nukes?” DOLE: All right. But next week, you take “Save the Whales.”
The almighty dollar
Now, I’ve been lucky enough to interview Clinton and Dole one-on-one, and I’ll tell you this: Each is more engaging and funnier in conversation than he ever was on the stump. We only can hope the bright glare of the TV lights don’t bring back Clinton’s double-talk or Dole’s caution.
Then again, it could be worse. They could be doing this in Qatar. That’s where Arab leaders met last week and, perhaps having watched too much cable TV, degenerated into name calling. One yelled, “Shut up, you monkey!” Another countered, “Damn your mustache.”
You can’t get that material on CBS.
Then again, when all is said and done, Clinton versus Dole is not really about rational discourse. It also is not about a fair and balanced debate. It is not about two experienced political voices rising above the Sturm und Drang of the American cacophony.
What it’s really about, as many people can tell you, is plain and simply the highest principle in the land:
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org.