Some 'Cone of Silence'
Presidential politics took a back seat to the Olympics Saturday night when the Rev. Rick Warren interviewed both candidates, back to back, at a forum broadcast on three cable networks.
Still, the so-called Saddleback Civil Forum was hyped as the opening shot of the fall campaign. It was billed as an opportunity for voters to watch the candidates answer identical questions. And it was analyzed in dozens of columns by political writers who by and large gave high marks to the performance of Sen. John McCain. In other words, it was an event with significance beyond its viewership.
Like other political junkies, I suspect, I flipped back and forth between the games and the candidates, eager to hear at least some of their answers to questions viewers were told were unrehearsed, unknown to either candidate and identical to both.
Now news has emerged that an event moderated by the leader of one of this country's biggest mega-churches was nothing short of dishonest. Warren had promised viewers that while Barack Obama was being interviewed first, John McCain would be isolated in a "cone of silence" so that he would hear neither questions nor answers. And he said the candidates had not been told the questions in advance.
The importance of this arrangement seemed obvious. For one thing, both candidates were supposed to participate under the same rules on a proverbial "level playing field." Fairness demanded it.
For another, as voters, we wanted to see how the candidates think and respond to spontaneous questions, not how well they spew pre-planned sound bites memorized on the trail.
Finally, deception had no place at a "nonpartisan" campaign event, particularly one sponsored by a church.
But it now appears that the forum was anything but fair. As the Christian Science Monitor's Vote blog, notes, "Seems that when John McCain was supposed to be in a soundproof vault Saturday night or as Saddleback church pastor Rick Warren put it, a 'cone of silence,' he was actually in his motorcade."
That means, despite McCain's assertion he didn't listen, the Republican senator's handlers could easily have heard Warren's questions, heard Obama's answers and prepped the candidate as he was arriving at the forum to answer identical questions.
It's a point that has been picked up in a few major news outlets. But it has gotten a lot less coverage than the glowing reviews of McCain's performance.
"It is now clear why Barack Obama has refused John McCain's offer of joint town hall appearances during the fall campaign," wrote columnist Michael Gerson in the Washington Post. "McCain is obviously better at them."
Well, Mr. Gerson -- and the rest of us, too -- would probably look darn good on stage if we knew the questions and our opponents' answers before we arrived.
The McCain campaign has feigned outrage at this suggestion, issuing a statement, asserting: "The insinuation from the Obama campaign that John McCain, a former prisoner of war, cheated is outrageous."
But please: Are we now supposed to believe that presidential politics operates on an academic honor system? It's awfully hard to give much credence to the McCain campaign's denial given the steady stream of negative ads its candidate already has used, including one comparing Obama to Paris Hilton and Britney Spears and three that the Annenberg School's nonpartisan www.factcheck.org notes contain "multiple false and misleading claims about Obama's tax proposals."
Let's get real. I suspect that had Obama gone second and been given the same opportunity, he, too, would have listened, even though he has sought in his rhetoric throughout this campaign to elevate the level of dialogue. Politics, it has been said, is blood sport. And never before have so many millions been poured into it.
As it turns out, both candidates and Warren play acted the discussion as if it were purely candid. Instead, the Post and others are now reporting, that both camps were given a general idea of the subject area in advance and sample questions actually used in the interviews, including a tough one about their "own greatest moral failure."
So what you saw on Saturday night now seems to have been a mix of showbiz and politics. All that was missing were the teleprompters.
If McCain broke the rules and watched Obama, he cheated. But the real blame lies not with candidate McCain but with the reverend or his staff for presenting the Saddleback forum one way but letting it play out another.
In an age of political cynicism, it's always hard to sort truth from fiction, to figure out whom and what to believe. When churches join the list of those bending the rules, the task gets that much harder.
Jerry Lanson teaches journalism at Emerson College in Boston. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.