Honolulu Lite

by Charles Memminger

Friday, October 18, 1996


Debate just didn't
do it for Dole

OK. We've seen the presidential debates, if that's what you want to call them. They actually are more like a Toastmasters final exam, where form and appearance get more points than substance.

Mike Wallace once said the difference between him and the venerable, although late, Harry Reasoner, was that while they both went for the jugular vein, Harry did it with an electric razor. And that's the sense you get watching Bob Dole go after Bill Clinton's jugular. Except, he's not even using an electric razor. He's using one of those Nerf, Lil' Kids Barber Shop razors that couldn't cut through shaving cream.

Dole did fine. I mean, he looked swell. He gets younger every time we see him. It's a little weird seeing a guy in his 70s with locks of dark hair and a tight, tanned face and a Bill Clinton, in his 50s, with gray hair and bags under his eyes that could hold more canned goods than a kitchen pantry. Dole didn't make any gaffs, like saying Poland is being run by renegade Yugoslav Boy Scouts. He did fine.

But that's like still being vertical after going 10 rounds with Mike Tyson. Your head is still on your shoulders. You did fine, but you still lost. See, you gotta beat the champ. And Dole didn't even stun Clinton.

Sure, there were a few times when Dole said something bordering on nasty and you could see Clinton's jawbone working there under the skin. And then Clinton moved around the lectern like he was about to cold-cock Dole. But he didn't. He just ignored the Nerf assault and moved toward the audience with the style and grace usually displayed by someone who had hosted a talk show for 20 years. There were times when Clinton was so comfortable with the audience, I thought he was going to climb into somebody's lap.

THE problem for Dole is that as much as his handlers promised the gloves were going to come off at this debate, the man just doesn't have it in him. At least, not in front of millions of viewers. Sure, he took off the gloves. But there were mittens underneath. Dole is the product of a legislative system that survives on compromise and negotiation. In Congress, today's enemies are tomorrow's allies. Leverage, not brute strength, is the key.

And so Dole made his attempt at exposing Clinton's fairly prodigious list of scandals. But too much of the time the charges were merely vague allusions to wrong-doing. Instead of accusing Clinton of laundering a half-million dollar bribe from a foreign country through some green-card Indonesian yard boy straight into the Democratic National Committee, Dole mumbled something about the DNC having to return $250,000 to someone someplace. Huh? In fact, too many times it seemed like Dole was having trouble keeping up with the teleprompter, leaving out gaps of language here and there, like a skipping record.

Clinton, on the other hand, literally dripped with the false sincerity that is propelling him to a landslide victory. Whatever that stuff is, I hope they bottle it because I'd buy a case.

Both candidates had the annoying habit of plagiarizing complete sections of their previous speeches and lowering them like spans of bridge into whatever subject was being discussed. Dole was so pleased with a joke he told during the first debate (about falling off the stage and being called on his cellular by a trial lawyer before he hit the ground) that he told the exact same joke again. Hey, man, this ain't the Comedy Club. I think presidential debates are important enough to at least come up with new material each time out of the chute.

The thing is, the party's over. Even if Dole convinced Mother Teresa to join his campaign, he'd still lose. And if Clinton throttled Mother Teresa on the White House lawn, his poll number wouldn't move an inch.



Charles Memminger, winner of National Society of Newspaper Columnists awards in 1994 and 1992, writes "Honolulu Lite" Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Write to him at the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, P.O. Box 3080, Honolulu, 96802 or send E-mail to charley@nomayo.com or 71224.113@compuserve.com.



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