The Last Word | October 12, 2012
>>> in the rewrite tonight, rewriting the rules of presidential debates . i always hated the rules of presidential debates and took my first public swing at them when i wrote the live debate episode of the nbc series "the west wing " in 2005 . i'm going to show you the clip of the first couple of minutes of the episodes. and you'll have to bear with seeing some of the opening credits floating through the scene.
>> don't worry about getting everything in every answer. we can fill in the blanks with the press. remember two-minute answers followed by one-minute rebuttals. moderator's option to allow a 30 second rebuttaltor a but the al.
>> stupid rules. one minute, 30 seconds. what can you say in 30 seconds.
>> why the hmplet ell do we agree to them?
>> because they protect you.
>> no they don't. they make me feel stiff.
>> be yourself. don't forget to smile.
>> i'm telling you.
>> you have no idea what this feels like.
>> he's got no answer to how he's going to pay for his tax cuts. he's going to run the clock out on that one. if you get into a jam use a paragraph from your stump speech .
>> that was the great ron silver and janine garafalo saying what every presidential debater is told when they are going into these debates. when they have the strukt rules when they had 60 seconds clock and the 30 seconds for rebuttal, the yellow lights you have ten seconds left, the red lights means you have no time left. those rules were there because the campaigns negotiated those rules so that the candidates could hide behind them. as some of you may recall, alan alda 's character stopped and proposed junking those rules so they could have a real debate. jimmy smits 's character agreed. a real, debate, one of the members of the presidential debate commission quoted that phrase to me privately last night after the debate in kentucky. a real debate, he said proudly, and with a wink about what we had just seen. that was his way of acknowledging me "the west wing "'s contribution to those debates. some on the commission tried to do this in 2008 , but the campaigns resisted this year. the commission insisted and so we've seen something much closer to real debates with no red lights and much less moderator control of what you get to hear. but in the seven years since i wrote that " west wing " script, my thinking has moved far beyond just getting red of the red lights . there is much more that we need to rewrite in the debate rules. first, candidates should be allowed to bring notes. they should be allowed to bring giant briefcases full of notes and "forensic files" and memos, anything they want to consult during the debate. these debates are about finding the best president , not the best memorizer. if it's a memorizer you want, then kevin klein or any other american-born actor who has learned all 1,495 lines of hamlet, the biggest part shakespeare ever wrote, deserves your vote. the debates now put candidates through ridiculous memorization tests that have nothing to do with the job of doing president. there will always be staff present to brief the president on whatever he or she needs to remember or know, which is why, to return to the protocol of senators debating in the chamber, each candidate should be allowed at least one staff member to sit beside the candidate throughout the debate. it is not even slightly districting to senate debates to have a staff member sitting beside the senator as you see every day on c span handing the senator what is about to say. i used to be one of those people and some friends of mine who were watching on c span didn't even notice me. that's how invisible staff can be in government. but they are absolutely essential in government. the president is never alone with a decision, and you would never want him to be. candidates alone on the debate stage, foster a fiction where the presidency is a form of tennis in a business suit where you stand out there and do it all alone. another debate commissioner who i've known for decades told me last night that he thinks the candidates should get the questions in advance. i hadn't thought of that one myself, but as soon as i heard it, i agreed with him. in most presidencies there will not be one instance, not one in four years in office, where a president has to think on his feet in the instant about a policy decision. nor would you want him to. you want a president to carefully consider every governing decision, to take as much time as it takes to make the best decision. to give more thought to and seek more advice on things he or she is not sure about. what we should want to hear from presidential candidates is a careful, considered position, a response they've had time to think about. the candidates' best possible reply to the question. if audiences know that the candidates have the questions ahead of time, the standards we use to judge a good answer will be higher, much, much higher. we will have a right to expect much more. today, a presidential candidate would be howled off the stage by the news media if the candidate said i'd like to think about that a little more, study it and get back to you on that. but that is in fact what presidents tell senators and others they meet with in the oval office all the time, and it is always received as a perfectly reasonable and prudent presidential response. but we don't televise oval office meetings or any other real business of governing so the public and the news media for the most part have no real idea of how governing is done and who does it well. then, that same news media presents presidential debates and instantly tells us who woven and who lost in the contest that is always judged more on style than on substance. post-debate pundit analysis always rewards wit as if it is a presidential job requirement. but wit has no value in the situation room . who do you want in the situation room ? the funniest guy? the best memorizer? or the most thoughtful and careful and deliberative decision maker? in the news coverage that immediately follows the presidential debates , the analysis which some of you may have noticed i for one am a bit shy about offering because i think about preparing for what i've just seen, that post-debate analysis, all too often loses sight of the most important fact. that debate audiences should remember. we are not electing debater in chief. we are electing a commander