There was a moment, many elections ago, when Jon Lovitz appeared as Michael Dukakis across the stage from a babbling Dana Carvey doing his best Thousand Points of Light George Bush. When the Bush-speak flurry subsided, faux Dukakis lamented, "I can't believe I'm losing to this guy." Maybe that was how things were destined to turn out, regardless how Saturday Night Live affects or impacts the electoral process in this great land of ours. But this is they way of political discourse in America these days. Me? I blame Roger Ebert.
I should say from the outset that I have great respect for the written film criticism of the late Mister Ebert. I spent an afternoon entranced by the nearly shot-by-shot breakdown of Casablanca. As a film lover and student, I was amazed at all the insights and thought he was able to pull out of this chestnut. It was most satisfying, especially when contrasted with his regular appearances in the "balcony" on PBS's Sneak Previews and later in syndication At The Movies. Roger split time on these shows with his frenemy Gene Siskel, another noted Chicago newspaper film critic. Putting these two guys on television immediately elevated their commentary above that of their suddenly second-tier colleagues who didn't have the kind of face time these two Windy City guys were presented. It was at this moment, when film criticism switched to Pauline Kael's periodically cruel but incisive examination of the art of film to a Consumer Reports model of "thumbs up or thumbs down." The how and why became less important than the direction of that one digit. Taking apart a film, good or bad, in search of the qualities that made it more or less entertaining was now distilled to a gesture.
Which brings me to the Lincoln-Douglas debates. Back in 1858, before C-SPAN or PBS or even Roger Ailes, political debates were not exercises in sound bites. They were sound meals. Opening remarks for each of these candidates for a seat in the United States Senate lasted an hour or more. Then rebuttals would go on for half an hour. There was no rush to get good tape for the nightly news, since it didn't exist. Points were made in great blooms of oration, with to occasional bon mot or accusation. As many as ten thousand people attended these debates to watch them live. The Quicken Loans arena holds twice that number, but I'm not guessing those in attendance experienced more of the Siskel and Ebert side of things than Lincoln and Douglas.
And who should I blame? Siskel, Ebert, Lincoln and Douglas are all gone now. We are stuck with the GOP clown car. For which I give my personal thumbs down.