At the risk of having my membership card in the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy revoked, I have to dissent from the widespread condemnation in the conservative blogosphere—including by John Podhoretz—of CNN over its handling of last week’s Republican presidential debate.
CNN no doubt erred, as it now admits, by not disclosing the Clinton campaign affiliation of retired general Keith Herr, who posed a videotaped question about gays in the military and followed up with a live harangue on the subject. But it’s not as if all the questions were from liberals. The questioners included conservative gadfly Grover Norquist and at least two gun-rights advocates. There is no doubt that some of the other questioners, for instance those who asked about abortion, came from a liberal perspective, but so what? Any Republican nominee worth his salt has to be ready to deal with snarky questions from liberals—that’s about all he’ll get from the press corps. So it’s good for the contenders to show a national TV audience how well they perform.
What I liked most were some of the off-beat questions—precisely those that pundits sneer at the most but that have the greatest potential to move candidates off scripted answers. For instance, I liked the guy who asked Ron Paul about his views on conspiracy theories linking my employer, the Council on Foreign Relations, to a supposed plot to build a superhighway across North America that will destroy American sovereignty. (Paul’s answer was to dissent from the charge of “conspiracy” while backing the essence of the conspiracy theory.) I liked the guy who asked the candidates to tell us how many guns they own and what their favorite is; John McCain answered that effectively by referring to the time when he used to carry a .45 as a Navy pilot. And I liked the guy who asked Rudy Giuliani whether he was taking advantage of 9/11 to win the presidency; that gave Giuliani an opportunity for a cogent and impressive comeback. I even liked the oddball who sang a song about the candidates at the beginning. While not exactly great art, it was goofy and somewhat endearing.
I had initially planned to watch only the first 30 minutes of the debate while riding an exercise bicycle in a hotel gym. But the show had me hooked so I kept peddling and watched over an hour’s worth at the gym, and then caught much of the rest of it back in my hotel room. It was no Lincoln-Douglas debate, but it was certainly an entertaining window onto the presidential race. I don’t think CNN deserves all the vilification it’s getting.