"Are you a liberal?" Only if God's on our side! So what did we learn from the 1297th and possibly final debate of the Democratic presidential primary season? That journalist-questioners are endlessly rude, and hinder more than they help. That John Edwards is pretty effective when he goes on the attack. That Al Sharpton's and Dennis Kucinich's demands for equal treatment were a whole lot easier to listen to back before they'd been soundly rejected by primary voters and caucus-goers in every state in which they've run. (Okay, Kucinich did all right in Hawaii.) And that John Kerry isn't going to fill anyone with spasms of excitement, but that there's virtually no way he can blow the nomination at this point.
Yesterday's debate, sponsored by CBS News and the New York Times, was particularly frenetic because it only lasted for an hour. Dan Rather, at least, was polite in trying to move things along; and I wanted to cheer when he told Sharpton that "I think you will agree, the voters have spoken." But Andrew Kirtzman, of WCBS-TV, in New York, seemed clueless. And Times reporter Elisabeth Bumiller was a constant distraction, interrupting before anyone could even get out a fragment of an answer, and continually trying to push her agenda.
Item: In discussing yesterday's departure of Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the first democratically elected leader in that country's history, Bumiller at one point asked, "But no one says he's a good president, so why is it so terrible he's gone? You've all agreed on that." As her own paper's editorial page puts it this morning, Aristide left because of pressure "from a Bush administration too willing to ignore democratic legitimacy in order to allow the removal of a leader it disliked and distrusted."
You know, the Democrats all agree that George W. Bush isn't a good president, either, and he wasn't even democratically elected. What do you suppose Bumiller's response would be if one of the candidates called for Haitian troops to remove Bush from office?
Item: Bumiller's intellectually insulting interrogation of Kerry as to whether he is a "liberal." Roll the tape:
BUMILLER: The National Journal, a respected, nonideologic [sic] publication covering Congress, as you both know, has just rated you, Senator Kerry, number one, the most liberal senator in the Senate. You're [she gestures to Edwards] number four. How can you hope to win with this kind of characterization, in this climate?
KERRY: Because it's a laughable characterization. It's absolutely the most ridiculous thing I've ever seen in my life.
BUMILLER: Are you a liberal?
KERRY: Let me just ...
BUMILLER: Are you a liberal?
KERRY: ... to the characterization. I mean, look, labels are so silly in American politics. I was one of the first Democrats in the United States Senate in 1985 to join with Fritz Hollings in deficit reduction. Now, does that make me a conservative? I fought to put 100,000 police officers on the streets of America. Am I a conservative?
BUMILLER: But, Senator Kerry, the question is ...
KERRY: I know. You don't let us finish answering questions.
BUMILLER: You're in New York.
Are you a liberal? Are you a liberal? Are you a liberal? I would expect this from Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity, not one of the lead reporters at the paper of record. Pathetic. (By the way: Kerry is a liberal!)
Item: Dan Rather began the proceedings by asking the candidates about their "spirituality" or "religiosity." It was a little weird - Rather, after all, is a little weird - but I thought it was within bounds, since all four of them have brought up the G-word at one time or another. And, actually, their answers were at least somewhat revealing.
But then, in the closing minutes, Bumiller came back to it - this time putting it in the context of President Bush, who, she claimed, "has made quite clear in his speeches that he feels God is on America's side." (A fair interpretation, perhaps, but has Bush ever said anything quite that crude? I don't think so.)
She then asked: "Really quick, is God on America's side?" Roll that around on your tongue, in your mind, for a moment. Really quick, is God on America's side? Is this what we need from the people who are supposed to be explaining the presidential campaign to us? A sneering jab at Bush, followed by an invitation to the Democrats to make horse's asses of themselves? Really quick?
Kerry, understandably, looked stricken at the vacuousness of Bumiller's question. He fumbled around for a moment and didn't say much of anything. Edwards had such a good answer that you couldn't help but wonder whether he knew it was coming, observing that Abraham Lincoln once refused to pray that God was on our side - but that "I'll join you in a prayer that we're on God's side."
Good recovery. But that doesn't excuse Bumiller's cheap stunt.
Kerry supports federal benefits for gay couples. On Friday, I asked whether Edwards had moved ahead of Kerry in promising to extend federal marriage rights - though not the word "marriage" - to gay and lesbian couples that marry in states that choose to allow same-sex marriage. Kerry answered that yesterday, saying at one point, "That's why I am for civil union. That's why I'm for partnership rights. That's why I'm for even the federal extension, with respect to tax code and other rights."
With that, I would argue that Kerry is superior to Edwards on gay and lesbian rights, since Kerry's support of civil unions is more definitive than Edwards's. Neither man supports same-sex marriage.
Rod Paige, meet Mike Barnicle. Tim Francis-Wright catches WTKK Radio (96.9 FM) talk-show host Mike Barnicle referring to two Academy Award nominees with foreign-sounding names - one of whom is (gasp!) Iranian - as "terrorists." One would expect outrage, but I suppose that would be too much coming from a station that lets Jay Severin refer to illegal immigrants as "wetbacks" and Arabs as "towelheads." UPDATE/CLARIFICATION: The original item appeared in Saturday's Globe. Francis-Wright gives proper attribution, but I misunderstood the sequence.