A debt to societies
| The life
of the party
Miss Clark goes to Washington
the fall's presidential debates, senior Cinda Clark contends that honesty
should have been the best policy
By Cinda Clark
day Al Gore officially announced his candidacy for President of the United
States, I was sitting on a couch in his White House chief of staff's office.
Above the Tennessee courthouse where Gore
was speaking flew the American flag I had delivered from the Capitol to
the White House travel office the morning before. During the 22 minutes
he laid out his dreams for this country, my Vice President made me proud
to be a part of something so historic.
By that point last summer as a Gore intern,
I had read enough of his mail to understand that people write to their
Vice President about the concerns that weigh heaviest in their hearts
and lives. Senior citizens pleaded for affordable prescription drugs.
Parents cried out for reduced media violence and gun availability. Working
mothers removed from welfare shared their inability to afford proper health
and day care for their children.
These people were asking for someone to
talk to them about their fears in a way that made sense. I beamed that
day because what I believed politics could be had become a reality.
My initial fascination with government
was inspired by its role as the platform used to discuss the most fundamental
issues in our society -- health care, education, equal opportunity, economic
stability, public safety, world relations, the environment.
On the day of his speech, I heard Gore
speak directly to the people from his letters. He convinced me that politics
could be honorable. My idealistic hope for the presidential debates that
followed between Gore and George W. Bush was that the exchanges would
be the perfect discussion outlet for the issues I had recognized as so
That ideal would become the centerpiece
of my senior Honors research thesis. I began by asking questions traditionally
used to judge presidential debates. Is character more important than depth
of knowledge? How comforted are we by smooth rhetoric? How important is
it to us that our president be handsome? Do we like it when the candidates
criticize each other?
However, after watching this year's three
debates, I realized I forgot to ask the one question that should not be
negotiable. How important is it to us that the candidates tell the truth?
Perhaps my expectations for the debates
were too utopian, but I didn't anticipate asking that final question.
I foolishly assumed that the candidates would be forced into honesty by
the spontaneous nature of live debate.
Instead, after every debate I found myself
listening to commentators and journalists sweep up after both candidates'
distortions and false facts. While I had come to expect half-truths and
exaggeration in television ads and stump speeches, my gut hoped these
debates would be a relief from those tactics. When they weren't, I took
it personally on behalf of the people whose letters to Gore I had read -- who
were being cheated out of honest discussion about their concerns.
Along with many others, those same people
were the ears behind the debates. Seniors were still searching for how
they would get money to buy their medication. Parents were still looking
for solutions to violence. Mothers still needed to take their uninsured
children to the doctor.
My desire was that the debates would help
them find their hope for an answer. Listening to citizens ask questions
in the third debate, I remembered how grateful I had been to have my own
concern personally addressed by Gore. Seated with the Vice President at
a table, we exchanged questions about early childhood education.
In that town hall meeting, the very same
type of communication between constituent and candidate should have taken
place. That is the kind of conversation with our leaders the debates should
encourage. Through this process, I think I've learned how the debates
could provide those elusive answers.
I challenge the Committee on Presidential
Debates, along with the campaigns themselves, to encourage honesty by
not crippling discussion in debates with rigid formats. Candidates should
be permitted to ask each other questions and offer rebuttals. Citizens
participating in town hall meetings must be allowed to have conversation
with the opponents and not be restricted to asking questions. Both changes
would demand that the candidates be held accountable for their assertions.
Both changes would also bring more people
into the discussion that is about them, anyway. This fall, I came back
to Washington and spent part of my time interning at the Democratic National
I was driven to contribute to the campaign
that energized and inspired me last summer. Now, the comparison of my
two experiences has left me wrestling with an unfortunate lesson about
how destructive a campaign can be to the integrity of a candidate's message.
Still, I am not completely discouraged.
I began listening to the beat of political discussion because I saw potential
to reach people there, not because I believed it was perfect. My commitment
to effective communication of powerful, personal issues has not changed.
Too many people still need messages they
can understand and believe. If anything, I am more encouraged than ever.
My idealism, however, is gone.