Posted: July 24, 2007
By Celia Cohen
CNN broadcast a two-hour doldrum of a Democratic presidential debate Monday evening from the early primary state of South Carolina, while the real drama was several channels away in the escapism on ESPN.
The sports network was bringing the miracles of modern science to life, as Jon Lester pitched for the Boston Red Sox in a victorious comeback a year after he was diagnosed with cancer and Barry Bonds, also known as the Human Asterisk, kept trying to hit more home runs than any ordinary mortal man.
Who watches this debate stuff? Nothing but relatives and payrollers presumably.
CNN twinned with YouTube for a gimmicky forum that was something like a town hall meeting without the town. Instead of live voters engaging the candidates, it was the dead hand of video clips, scripted and nerveless.
Joe Biden, who is at his most memorable, for better or for worse, when he is swimming in spontaneity, was in dutch even before the debate began. His campaign tried to manipulate this strangely static medium by prodding his supporters into stuffing the question box with videos pointing out that only Biden has offered a political solution for Iraq, so what would the other candidates propose?
Anderson Cooper, the CNN moderator, tweaked Biden over the "particular effort" to force the issue. "We're not going to reveal which campaign wanted us to ask that question, Senator Biden," he said.
Cooper's reprimand was about as stern as a wink, though. The only rule for the Internet is there are no rules.
This numbing debate bore little relation to the YouTube that has become the pixie of politics, an intoxicating mischief-maker that has given the country the gyrations of "Obama Girl" and the "macaca" cackling of George Allen.
The candidate who probably used YouTube to his best advantage was John Edwards, emerging when the debate participants were allowed to show their own brief videos.
The model-handsome Edwards has been skewered on YouTube in a devastating clip that plays "I Feel Pretty" while he fusses with his hair, so he countered with a hair-themed video of his own. Set to the title song of the musical "Hair," it showed all sorts of Katrina-like things going wrong until it ended with the words, "What really matters?"
Maybe more than any other candidate, Biden had the right to take on YouTube. People whose memories go back 20 years may remember that he was the original casualty of what was once called the videotape revolution, the ancient ancestor of YouTube, during his first presidential race when he was caught pirating language from a British politician and getting smart with a voter in New Hampshire. In those days it was that nerdy C-SPAN that did him in.
Biden was no fall guy this time, however. CNN could not stop him from getting his way. There had to be questions about Iraq, and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair was in his element. CNN's panel of experts -- political analyst Bill Schneider, Republican strategist Leslie Sanchez and radio host Bill Press -- declared Hillary Clinton the overall winner of the debate but rated Biden as knowing the most about issues.
"When he talked about military matters and foreign affairs, you could hear his deep knowledge and experience," Schneider noted on CNN's Web site.
Biden was so earnest that he trumped himself on a two-part video question, asking about Iraq and about candidates' family members in the military. He latched deeply onto the first part, as he elaborated with some warmth about his reason for voting to continue war funding -- because it included mine-resistant vehicles to protect the troops -- and astonishingly skipped the second part.
So much for his chance at a national nod to Beau Biden, the heir-apparent attorney general and Delaware National Guard JAG captain.
Otherwise, Joe Biden was his typical self -- surges of brash brilliance dimmed by lapses of Senate-speak. That is the baffling English-as-a-second-language that made John Kerry say, "I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it."
Biden scored a laugh when a couple of mopes from Tennessee wondered on their dumbed-down video whether any of the candidates had their feelings hurt by the mainstream media's obsession with a possible late entry by Al Gore. After Anderson Cooper determined that nobody had, Biden cracked about the video, "I think the people of Tennessee just had their feelings hurt."
Biden quit while he was ahead on that one, but not when a Michigan man, asking about gun control, brandished a menacing assault weapon. "This is my baby," the man said.
"I'll tell you what, if that's his baby, he needs help," Biden said, getting himself applause, but then losing the moment in an attack of bewildering Senate babble as he continued, "I am the guy who originally wrote the assault weapons ban, that become law, and then we got defeated and then Dianne Feinstein went to town on it and did a great job."
Throughout the debate, it was hard not to think that Biden was working not just on running for president but also on a possible Plan B, playing footsy with Clinton about becoming secretary of state.
When Clinton's campaign video was shown, Biden was seen smiling exorbitantly in the background at the tagline, which read, "Sometimes the best man for a job is a woman."
If Biden did have a fallback in mind, then his best success of the evening came in three magic words from Clinton. She spoke them during a discussion about an instant pullout from Iraq, after Biden explained that the top logistical minds in the military estimated there could be no immediate withdrawal, that it would take a year to bring the troops out.
"Joe is right," Clinton said.