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US Elections: Baiting With Weighted Breath

Bore and Gush (oil, that is) duked it out for the final time in a TV debate on Tuesday night. All I saw of it was the glimpse I got through a stretch limo's tinted windows of Gush shaking his fist and Bore pacing. The limo was disgorging its passengers outside the Orpheum Theatre in San Francisco and whatever it was the two chosen ones were arguing about caused the passengers to linger in the limo, much to the annoyance of the people in cars held up behind it. I've given up on trying to guess how Americans view these debates. Apparently they thought Bore was 'too nice' in the previous debate whereas I mistook him for a hooded reptile. In the first debate they thought he sighed heavily to deliberately irk his opponent.

All three debates were moderated by Jim Lehrer, who copped quite a bit of flak for not being feisty enough. Lehrer's journalist cohort during the Watergate hearings, Robin MacNeil, commented on Friday night's 25th anniversary "NewsHour with Jim Lehrer" that the blanding of candidates by focus group fever has meant that people now expect the moderator to provide the fire and feistiness. "It was the hardest work I've ever done, these last three debates", said Lehrer. In 25 years?

If fire and feist was what you wanted you wouldn't have found it either in the extraordinary interview, earlier in the same show, with Tova Herzl - newly appointed Israeli ambassador to South Africa but currently still in Washington - and Hasan Rahman, representing the Palestinian Liberation Organisation. The two barely acknowledged each other's presence though they were seated just inches apart - the ice fair froze the electrons inside my TV. Not that there wasn't a conflagration just below the surface, barely contained on the part of Ms Herzl in her blood red dress.

In reply to Herzl's reference to the inciteful Palestinian way of referring to their dead in the conflict as 'martyrs' Rahman replied that they were being killed in their own country, not in Israel, and that it "borders on racism" to say the Palestinians want their people killed. There is no possibility of a peaceful resolution to this conflict, as anyone watching the documentary "Peace of Mind" earlier in the week soon realised. The doco was made by Israeli and Palestinian teenagers in 1998, and the frankness of those kids and the relentlessness of the situation they are growing up in will make you weep.

The genie is now well and truly out of the bottle in the Middle East, and back here the greenie has been well and truly put back in while that crisis has been on the front page - coincidentally for the whole time that public attention might have forced the debate organisers to invite a third voice into the debates. There was two days' breather when sports stories could surface again and then the news went back to the burden of being "the world's only super power", as both Gush and Bore like to refer to their country. I love the Americans I have gotten to know here - their politeness, their kindness and their respect for others. Which makes it all the more inexplicable to me that the USA has become the world's sociopath. It is the equivalent of the person who walks into your house, lights up a cigarette, and says: "I can't see an ashtray. Get me one." Hullo?

Tonight (Friday) is the eve of Ralph Nader's SuperRally in Oakland, and what news stories are on the local news? 1) The arrival of the Vietnam War memorial wall replica at Pier 3 in Alameda - the island next to Oakland that used to have a huge naval base on it. Cue Republican undecided voter thought: "Commander in Chief". 2) The confession by an Egyptian-born former US army officer that he masterminded the bomb blasts in Africa a couple of years ago, accompanied by pictures of two Africans carrying their bloodied co-worker away from the wreckage. Cue undecided African-American voter thought: "Commander in Chief". 3) Some "Nader supporters" saying his success in campaigning - his SuperRallies have all been sellouts - is jeopardising Gore's chances of beating Bush. Cue wavering Green/Democrat voter thought: "Commander in Chief".

Bush hardly uses the word "President" any more - it's always "Commander in Chief". This is the constitutional role of the president that allows him or her, without needing the approval of Congress, to send troops into action anywhere in the world for 60 days. Is this a decision Clinton will have in store very soon? Are Democrats Commander-in-Chief enough for the job?

But, lest we forget that there is more to democracy than the election of a President, allow me to report on the other debate I watched this week - at the Berkeley Community Media studios. The debate was organised by the non-partisan League of Women Voters - without whom, I wager, democracy in this huge nation would be both impractical and impossible - and it was a forum for the candidates for city councilor for districts 2 and 6 of Berkeley. Curiously, all but one of the current Berkeley city councilors plus the mayor are women. No male candidates fronted for the debate.

The moderator introduced each candidate, pointed out that some others were unable to attend, and laid out the ground rules, such as: "When the red piece of paper goes up it's important that you finish quickly." Each woman gave a 2 minute spiel and then questions were asked. The first question was "How would you get consensus at city council meetings?". BCC meetings are legendary for their bickering and the length of time spent on inconsequential matters while weightier concerns get short shrift.

"Consensus" - ah, there's a novel expectation for a political body. "Eleanor E. Pepples" - now, there's a name to recall in 20 years time. Media-smooth, articulate, the total opposite of the grandmotherly incumbent in district 6, this young woman has her sights set on the top end of the ballot paper, methinks, under "President of the United States".

Lea Barker,
California
Friday 20th October PT


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