The Hogwarts School of Debate

The presidential debates are like the game of Quidditch. Where does Dubya get his mojo powers?

By Steve Burgess 13 Oct 2004 |

Steve Burgess is a freelance writer and the author of Who Killed Mom?, published in 2011 by Greystone Books.

Born in Norwalk Ohio, home of the famous virus, Steve was raised in Regina, SK, and Brandon, MB. He writes a regular column for The Tyee, often reviewing films but also, sometimes, detailing his hilarious world travels for Tyee readers. Steve is a former CBC Radio host and has won two National Magazine Awards. He has also won three Western Magazine Awards.

Reporting Beat: Travel, pop culture, politics, cobbling, knife sharpening, furnace repair.

Twitter: @steveburgess1

Website: Steve Burgess

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Not long ago in these pages I mused about whether John Kerry would gain lasting traction from his decisive victory in the first presidential debate. Elsewhere in this very same online journal I discussed options for TV viewers who crave a hockey fix. Now, due either to a thorough lack of imagination or an admirable consistency, I will combine those two themes.

The U.S. presidential debates (the third and last of which airs tonight) may not capture the interest of many desperate hockey fans, but perhaps they should. Certainly these crucial contests remind me of a certain well-known sporting event, albeit a fictional one.

The debates are a true playoff contest with genuinely high stakes, and watching them
has been a worthy substitute for the lost gladiatorial combat of the NHL. But the presidential debates don’t really remind me of hockey. They remind me of Quidditch.

Harry Potter strategy

Quidditch, as virtually all parents and children know, is the creation of Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling and is played by the broom-riding students of Hogwarts School for Wizards. First described in the books and later brought to life in the films, Quidditch was a hit for Harry Potter fans from the outset.

Quidditch is a dumb game—at least, as far as I can tell from the movie version. Players spend most of the contest riding around trying to throw balls through hoops in order to score points. After this has gone on for awhile the Snitch, an elusive little ball with wings, is released. Designated broom-riders called Seekers chase the Snitch and when one of them catches it, the game is over.

So then—most of the Quidditch players spend most of the game attempting to do something that will ultimately prove irrelevant to the outcome. It’s like a tennis match decided by a putting contest.

So too the debates. They are often described as the voters’ best chance to see where candidates stand—but ultimately it’s more about how they stand. Candidates spend a lot of time with their briefing books, preparing to smack each other around with facts and figures. Each debater marshals arguments and prepares positions. Each hopes to avoid gaffes, and those can indeed be decisive. But when it’s all over few remember the policy statements or the damning statistics. What matters is who grimaced, who looked shifty, who got zinged, who appeared presidential. Just like Quidditch, all the to-ing and fro-ing is mostly a sideshow. The decisive action is elsewhere.

No difference?

One of the difficulties for a Canadian watching these debates is the language difficulty—George W. Bush is obviously speaking some language we don’t understand. The vast majority of people who live outside the U.S. see in Bush an obnoxious simpleton. But to roughly one half of the American public, he’s a peach. Thus when you watch the debates and see the President looking like an obnoxious simpleton, you can’t draw any conclusions from it. He may in fact be doing very well.

Nonetheless, I’ve been cautiously encouraged so far. Kerry has looked solid twice now, and in so doing has refuted the Republican attacks against him. Those “wishy-washy” smears just don’t seem believable once you’ve seen Kerry in action. Bush’s Hillbilly Hypnotist act may be losing its mojo.

The debates have definitely boosted the Democrats and made the race closer (and shame on those who have suggested in recent Tyee threads that there is no real difference between the candidates. Get your head out of your ass. The fact that Kerry is obliged to sound unthreatening to small-town America during this campaign does not mean he’s Bush with an extra foot of hair. Does anybody truly think that, whatever the unforeseen global circumstances of the next four years, the Kerry team will react in the same way as Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld/Wolfowitz?)

Silver lining

So I am backing away from my earlier pessimism—but only half a step. Things still look fairly grim. When you consider that Bush has led the polls through periods when any sane electorate ought to have been storming the White House with torches, you must accept that most American voters don’t think like you and me.

Comfort yourself with this: if the unthinkable happens and George W. Bush is re-elected POTUS, we will have superb grounds for a class action suit. We can sue the American public for electoral malpractice. We’ll be rich as J.K. Rowling.

Steve Burgess reviews the screen, small and large, for The Tyee.

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