A Society Worthy of Our Televisions

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The best way to avoid disappointment is to have low expectations—they can almost always be met. In that sense, the Clinton-Trump debates did not disappoint. No one really expected them to be an intellectual feast. Their interest, such as it was, could be said to be more in the realm of psychology, or even of pathology, than that of ideas.

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Still Amusing Ourselves to Death

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In September 1988, Michael Dukakis and George H. W. Bush met in their second televised presidential debate. Moderator Bernard Shaw of CNN began by inviting Dukakis, the Governor of Massachusetts, to imagine his wife Kitty as the victim of a horrible crime. “Governor,” asked Shaw, “if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?”

The question wasn’t entirely out of the blue; Dukakis’ opposition to the death penalty was well-known and Republican strategists had aimed to portray him as generally soft on crime. But clearly Shaw was not hoping to initiate a thoughtful discussion of law and order issues. The first debate had been widely described as dull; the CNN newsman seemed determined to make sure that this one was not short of dramatic pizzazz. Would the bland Dukakis squirm and sweat uncomfortably? Would he flare up in rage? Of course the question was tasteless. But a fraught response would make good TV.

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