THERE’S NO DEBATE: WE JUDGE LIKE KIDS

You don’t normally get to pick your boss. And that’s the problem with this presidential election.

We are watching these debates between Al Gore and George W. Bush — two down, one to go — and in a way, we are conducting a job interview. The candidates are wearing their nicest suits, selling their strengths, downplaying their weaknesses.

It’s the same thing that happens when you go to hire a salesperson, a secretary or a housekeeper.

Only in this case, once you make your choice, the person no longer works for you, he’s in charge.

No wonder the way Gore sighs seems to make so much difference to us. No wonder the way Bush smiles goes such a long way with voters.

I mean, who wants a boss he doesn’t like?

A friendly face?

Which leads us to our dilemma. We are watching these debates like children auditioning baby-sitters. Who wants the old hag with a stern look and a sharp tongue? Wouldn’t we prefer the friendly-faced teenager who looks as if she wouldn’t mind a pillow fight?

I can’t tell you how many people after that first debate sent me e-mails complaining about Gore’s sighing and seeming impatience. And the fact that he behaved like a “know-it-all.”

Far fewer people said that when it comes to president, picking the guy who knows more might be important.

And how many people, after that first debate, branded Gore a “liar” because he said he’d traveled to Texas with a certain federal official (a guy most Americans have never heard of) when in fact he’d traveled with one of the man’s deputies (another guy most Americans have never heard of).

For that faux pas, and one other exaggeration (concerning how long a schoolgirl stood in a crowded classroom) Gore was pasted, lambasted and parodied on “Saturday Night Live” as a serial prevaricator.

Yet after the second debate, far fewer people jumped on Bush when he said that all three white supremacists charged with killing a black man in Texas “were going to be put to death.”

In fact, only two are.

I don’t know. Forgetting how many people you’re executing seems a more bothersome memory loss than who you took a trip with.

Why wasn’t there more objection? Because Bush comes across as the nice baby-sitter. We say to ourselves, “Ah, he didn’t mean anything by it.” Whereas with Gore, seen as stiff and deliberate, every word is measured on a scale of manipulation.

Did you notice in the second debate when Gore pointed out Bush’s record on health care in his home state of Texas? He said it ranked at the bottom of the U.S. barrel, 49th or 50th. If we’re judging candidates on their records, that’s a valid pretty criticism.

Yet when the moderator asked Bush — twice — “Are those numbers correct?” Bush never answered.

Was there outrage? No, because of the way we look at Bush. He doesn’t like to get too bogged down with numbers. Why should we?

The right man?

Now I know in reading this, many people will assume I am pro-Gore and anti-Bush. That is not true. To be honest, I haven’t made up my mind. Besides, I am not a political columnist, and whom I support matters little.

But I am concerned about the process. I am concerned about a country that sees sighs, eye rolls and kisses on “Oprah” as the barometers of who will make a good president.

The accusations that Gore “reinvents himself”? What politician doesn’t? Bush is charming and gets people to work together? They said the same things about Bill Clinton.

What worries me is that we, as Americans, have so little interest in the actual issues, that we judge our most important election based on who we think we’d like to have lunch with.

The teenage baby-sitter wasn’t always the most responsible one. The stern-looking hag often knew best how to handle an emergency. There is a time to worry which guy has a nicer laugh and a time to worry which guy knows what he’s talking about.

If you decide that’s Bush, fine. If you decide that’s Gore, fine. I am not telling people how to vote.

I am suggesting that if we want a serious president, we ought to be serious in our standards.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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