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The Big Payback

With this presidential debate, the highlights didn't come from Bush or Gore


So it wasn't Seattle; so nobody trashed a Starbucks to show their opposition to the WTO. Say "WTO" in this town, and most folks think you're talking about pro wrestling. It wasn't even Boston, where thousands of protesters showed up at the first presidential debate and some hurled stones at police, others briefly blocked buses from the exits of the debate and 16 were arrested. The situation wasn't quite that hectic around Washington University on Oct. 17, though hundreds shouted profane chants at the riot-ready police, and after the debate, at Skinker and Waterman, several unfortunate souls were pepper-sprayed by the city's mobile reserve and five protesters were arrested. Not exactly Bloody Sunday.

But the River City may have one distinction -- it may be the burial ground for the Commission on Presidential Debates. This may be the last time such a dull, desultory presidential debate takes place. Let's hope so, because if the commission is buried here, many would be happy to piss on its grave.

During a sparsely attended press conference at City Hall in University City, Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader suggested that it may not be his federal lawsuit against the debate commission that does the trick: The audience is dwindling. "Networks can't let the debate commission wither their audience without an economic consequence to the networks themselves," says Ralph. The numbers don't lie. The St. Louis debate drew 37.7 million viewers, up slightly from the second debate's audience of 37.6 million but down from the first debate, which drew 46.6 million. Back in the day, from 1980-92, presidential debates drew 62 million-80 million viewers.

But 36 million is still a crowd in most parts, so the inner scene at Wash. U. had media trappings reminiscent of the Super Bowl. The debate substituted for the game, the political reporters for the sportswriters. The media sat in a large room of the fieldhouse, away from the debate, watching monitors and being fed quotes and position papers in much the same way sportswriters receive stats and updates as the game progresses. The main difference was, when the Super Bowl was over, there were highlights of Kurt Warner throwing a bomb to Isaac Bruce for a 73-yard touchdown pass with 1:54 to go and then Mike Jones' last-second tackle to save the game. With the debate, there were no highlights -- just Al Gore and George W. Bush.

The only thing the Fourth Estate had at the debate that those at home on their couches didn't was pundits on demand. As soon as the debate ended, roving congressmen, politicos and borderline celebrities walked in, each followed by a person bearing a placard with the pundit's name on it. Each pundit wore a badge clearly reading "Bush" or "Gore," just in case anyone was confused.

Like many of his colleagues, Cragg Hines, Washington, D.C., columnist for the Houston Chronicle, walked over to check out the woman standing beneath the sign reading "Erin Brockovich." Hines could have passed for a bow-tied Orson Welles as he eyeballed Erin. That's Orson Welles circa the Paul Masson ad -- nothing like the thinner Charles Foster Kane. But when Hines discovered who it actually was beneath the sign, he turned on his heel to head back to his table. "Oh, it's the real Erin Brockovich," Hines said in mock disgust. "I thought it would be Julia Roberts."

The fact that it was the real Erin Brockovich -- whoever that is by now -- was a bit of a surprise. Maybe the Democrats couldn't convince Julia to show up to shill for Gore. They did persuade Rob Reiner, watched by millions for years as Archie Bunker's son-in-law on All in the Family, and Al Franken, known from Saturday Night Live, his book on Rush Limbaugh and his Stuart Smalley movie, to proselytize for Gore.

Reiner was flustered when Short Cuts asked what issues he disagreed with Nader on, saying he didn't know Nader's positions on capital punishment or abortion. When told Nader is against capital punishment, Reiner responded, "He is? Well, it's interesting, because I'm against capital punishment myself." What a meathead. Gore's in favor of capital punishment. But, then, it shouldn't be surprising that Reiner is involved in the campaign, because, like Gore and Bush, he's a fortunate son doing well in Daddy's business.

Franken got testy when asked whether it worried him that in a room full of congressmen, he was the most popular interview subject. "I've been asked that by so many journalists tonight," Al said. "Think of a new question." Okeedokee. What do you disagree with Nader on? "NAFTA and world trade," said Al. "That's a big issue, but I can't think of another issue off the top of my head." Franken insisted that it made sense to keep Nader and Pat Buchanan out of the debate, because they have no chance of winning the election. Minnesota was right to let Jesse Ventura in, he said, because Ventura had sufficient support. Wrong. Ventura was drawing just under 10 percent before the first of eight debates. By the time the second one was over, Ventura's support had jumped to 21 percent.

But why quibble with comedians? Next up was South St. Louis' own Richard Gephardt. He rattled off several issues on which he and Nader agree and quickly added one on which they don't -- capital punishment. The man who likely will be the next Speaker of the House, and the man most likely to be mistaken for Howdy Doody, said not only that Nader should have been in the debate but that there should have been more debates.

But there weren't more or better debates, so for this last hurrah for one-on-one debates, any action that took place did so outside the barricades. The hecklers from afar ranged from the deadly serious to the wacky to a few who were deadly serious and wacky. Take, for example, the Mars Society. The Mars boosters made the scene for three of the four election debates, in St. Louis handing out pins saying "Mars or Bust" and talking about "terra-forming" Mars. "It will save this planet. It might be the only way to survive, to go to Mars," says Tom Chatterton, a self-described "Web master" for the society. "We have to be a two-planet society no matter what. It's time for us to get up and start going up -- get off this planet and start terra-forming other planets."

Appearing a bit wacky but with a more earthbound mission was Tracy Blevins, a college instructor with a doctorate in pharmacology. She was clad in a cotton-candy-pink wig, a two-piece dress with a feathered fringe and "Medical Marijuana Barbie" written across her bare midriff. "I came as Medical Marijuana Barbie in order to attempt to destigmatize the use of marijuana as medicine by presenting the idea of medical marijuana in a humorous and nonthreatening way. There's nothing threatening about Barbie, so I wanted to make the analogy that there is nothing threatening about medical marijuana, either." Blevins, a Wash. U. alumna, made the trek from San Marcos, Texas, on her own to promote marijuana's medicinal benefits. Her trip paid off -- she hung around after the debate and was invited to speak to the downtown convention of the National Conference of Drug Addiction and Criminal Behavior.

Maybe Czech Radio's Olga Krupoverva had her finger on the pulse when, earlier in the day, on her way to one of Nader's stump speeches, she admitted she was having trouble getting airtime back in Prague because "it's hard to get people back home interested in this election." You said it, Olga.

OK, let's just assume that what so many political junkies are saying is true: Freeman Bosley Jr. is running for mayor again. When Short Cuts bumped into Freeman, he said he'd make an announcement, one way or another, after the November elections. It looks as if he'll run, and if he does, it will make for a more entertaining race than the current matchup of incumbent Clarence Harmon and challenger Aldermanic President Francis Slay.

Nobody in local politics lights up a room like the Boz, but, sad to say, this ain't 1993, when he won. You don't have Tom Villa in a blood feud with Tony Ribaudo, with the Boz above the fray, getting all of North St. Louis and a slice of the Central West End.

This time, Bosley could get into the race late and cheap, because he would be targeting his power base in North St. Louis and shooting for 34 percent of the city vote. But Slay comes from the vote-heavy 23rd Ward, which in 1997 cast 5,646 votes for Harmon, the third-highest ward total in the city. If Slay undercuts Harmon where the ex-police chief previously had done well and Bosley runs well, if not cleaning up, in North St. Louis, it would appear that a Bosley candidacy comes up short but virtually ensures Harmon's defeat. But maybe that's the point.

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