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Presidential TV debates will be dull, dull, dull... just like they always are

PULL up a chair, ladies and gents. Break out the popcorn. The Big Presidential Debates are on the horizon, coming at us with as much dangerous force as an AWOL spacecraft.

RTE will have a debate. TV3 will have one, too. The day after each is broadcast, journalists will report who was calmest, who was most presidential, who put their foot in their mouth.

The Big Debate Myth rides again, as it does in every election. The Big Debate Myth holds that these TV encounters are crucially important, that they change the voter's intentions and that no-one can afford to take them less than seriously.


The Myth is rooted in one of the earliest TV debates, the one between Richard Nixon and John F Kennedy.

Nixon was exhausted from touring the US, had lost weight so the collar of his shirt hung loosely around his neck, and hadn't shaved, so he had a five o'clock shadow. JFK had been lying beside a pool in Palm Beach.

Kennedy marched into the studio looking as if he owned it, and afterwards people said: "That big debate showed him to be so presidential, it caused him to win by a landslide."

Not true on any count. He didn't win by a landslide. In fact, he won very narrowly. Nixon trounced him in the debate when it came to knowing about international policy. And no evidence turned up after to justify the belief that the debate had been the tipping point. But you know how it is with myths: don't bother me with the data, I've made up my mind.

Hence the belief that the TV3/RTE debates will be rivetting and significant. They'll be neither.

Thousands of viewers will tune in at the beginning of each debate. The majority will last about 10 minutes, then switch to Sky Sports. Or go to sleep. Big Debates are proven sleep-inducers.

In advance, the handlers will spend hours fighting with the TV stations to hammer out the topics, the amount of time devoted to each and the number of minutes allocated to each candidate.

They'll want guarantees from TV3 that Vincent Browne won't be the Vincent Browne we're used to: random and promiscuously hostile. Instead, they'll want him constrained, contained and controlled -- Jedward with flat hair.

Then will come the preparation. Some candidates will want to take a poke at Martin McGuinness, and in rehearsal, they'll do just that.

"You never killed anyone when you were in the IRA," they'll say. "Tell us, why did they keep you, if you're such a lousy shot?"

The handlers will promptly rule out them saying anything of that nature on the programmes, on the basis that it wouldn't be presidential.


Instead, each candidate will be on message: McGuinness stressing his peace-making, Mary Davis reminding everyone of the Special Olympics, Sean Gallagher enthusing about reviving the spirit of Ireland, Michael D emphasising his human rights record, Gay Mitchell on his capacity to make global connections for the betterment of the economy.

Because each will be safely and resolutely on message, the debate won't be a debate at all.

Of course, there's a small possibility one of the candidates will manage to break out and make an emotional connection with the uncommitted voter.

A very small possibility. Or that one will make a major gaffe.

In reality, the odds are that these Big Debates will be like all earlier versions.

They'll get huge attention, be boring as hell and influence the end result not at all.