Actors are so fortunate. They can choose whether they will appear in tragedy or in comedy, whether they will suffer or make merry, laugh or shed tears. But in real life it is different. Most men and women are forced to perform parts for which they have no qualifications. Our Guildensterns play Hamlet for us, and our Hamlets have to jest like Prince Hal. The world is a stage, but the play is badly cast.
Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime, Oscar Wilde
Election 2016. We are off to the races. Which person who has yet to serve a single day in office as dogcatcher is contemplating a Presidential bid? Which Democrat will maim her opponent during a friendly game of jai alai? Which Republican loves Jesus and guns and hates sex and immigrants more? Who lost weight? Who had a facelift? Who landed a billionaire sugar daddy? Who is cloaking his book tour as a presidential campaign?
Debate season soon will be upon us. Time to dust off the brain cells and recall that freshman year seminar about Prisoner’s Dilemma. Two prisoners have committed a crime and they are in custody, sitting in separate rooms. If they say nothing, they will serve no more than 1 month in prison. If one rats and the other stays mum, the rat goes free and the quiet man serves 1 year. If both rat, each serves 3 months. The mutually advantageous strategy is to say nothing, but that requires the prisoners to trust each other. What will they do? Zany antics ensue. The rules of Prisoner’s Dilemma differ from the rules of Presidential Debates on a crucial point: the prisoners and the jailers know the rules. In our case, the candidates make their own rules, but they do not share those rules with us. I leave it to you to decide who is the jailer and who is the prisoner.
When I watch presidential debates, I begin with good intentions. I settle down with a whiskey and prepare to do my bit as a good citizen and inform myself of the quality and caliber of the candidates. No more than ten minutes into the fracas, I am pacing around the room, shouting at Himself that I would not invite these people into our house, so why for the love of Pete, are we asked to choose one of these quasi-religious, sex-obsessed sociopaths to run the country? The candidate who is the lesser rhetorician complains that other is breaking the rules. In the post-game, the media pundits wail that the moderator failed to enforce the rules. I shout some more. What are these rules? I ask. What are they talking about? Have you ever received the official rule book for debates? They’re not shy about banging me for a campaign donation, you would think they would slip a rules pamphlet in one of their mailings, so the folks at home can play along. Do the rules require that they speak to us like five year olds, or is it just a mad coincidence? Himself shrugs. I mutter something about certain doom and wander off to sulk. This happens every four years.
The format and rules for presidential debates are negotiated by the candidates’s advisors with the Commission on Presidential Debates. In 2012, I looked for the debate rules on the website for Commission on Presidential Debates. It is a nonpartisan nonprofit 501(c)(3) corporation. It disclosed its corporate sponsors, but they made it difficult to find the rules of the debates. I found the rules only by asking a friend who is a media expert and follows this stuff as his job.
You don’t need to consult the Official Rules to know that the debates are structured to permit the candidates speak in platitudes and banalities and to prevent us from evaluating them honestly. They labor under no dilemma because they trust each other to say nothing. This compact is never broken. There is no point asking the candidates questions about the economy, foreign countries, or global warming. We know how they will answer. Economy: good. Foreign countries: foreign. Global warming: gosh, is that the time? And, opinions change, whether for the good or the ill, but the candidates fear looking weak for allowing facts and logic and retrospection to affect them.
During a prolonged sulk, I recalled past campaigns. The memorable events of a presidential campaign are the moments when the candidate is off balance, when the mask slips -- the moment of candor.
“Stop lying about my record.” Bob Dole, 1988.
“Binders full of women.” Mitt Romney, 2012.
“And when they ask me who is the president of Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan I’m going to say, you know, I don’t know. Do you know?” Herman Cain, 2012.
“BLLLEEEAAAAHHH! Howard Dean, 2004.
If we are to learn what these people are made of, we must throw their constructed personae off balance and make them revert to their unscripted selves.
Here are my suggestions for Presidential Debates 2016 and to the end of recorded time.
1. Scrap the Debate Stage
You can see it now. The matching blond wood podia, or the dark wood desk, the red carpet, the medium blue background, the dark blue suit with the red tie, the dark blue suit with the blue tie, yawn.
2. Scrap the Commission on Presidential Elections
We will form a new body: the Commission to Coordinate Moments of Candor in Candidates (“COCMOCC”). Like ancient Athens, COCMOCC will be a democratic assembly and its membership will be drawn by lottery from all registered voters. The COCMOCCers shall serve a term of one year, the year in which the election is held, and they will receive the same salary and benefits as the members of the United States Congress. They will also receive a lifetime supply of Turtle Wax.™
3. Create games designed to trigger moments of candor
We have all been children, yes? And as children, we all devised games. The COCMOCCers will devise social experiments -- I mean games -- that will require the players to move naturally, speak extemporaneously and react spontaneously. They will be encouraged to be creative, within the confines of the Geneva Conventions.
When a game gets played and the players ignore the rules, what results is usually more fun than the game would have been had the players obeyed the rules. Games devolve into chaos, name-calling and physical violence. Sometimes, this is mildly insightful; oftentimes, it is entertaining.
Here are some ideas.
Cricket is the preferred darts game for this experiment, as it can be played by 2, 3, 4 or more players. This would permit third party candidates from the fun, wacky parties to join the experiment to enrich the viewer’s experience.
I don’t know about you, but in my house, darts is serious business. By serious, we get seriously drunk and then decide that is the optimal time to play darts, a game requiring an attention span and hand-eye coordination. Our reasoning is absolutely sound: When the senses are dulled and inhibitions loosened, that is the time to repair to the basement and throw sharp, pointy things at my freshly painted wall.
If you met my friends, you would think them to be a civilized lot. You would not think twice about lending them your car. It would not occur to you to hide the prescriptions drugs from them. They are Nice People, the sort who yield to drivers making a left turn, give to Heifer International, rescue animals, and floss daily. Three gins in, put them in front of a dart board, and they revert to the state of nature. Evenings start off Noel Coward and end Sun Tzu. The congenial talk of the dinner table is abandoned to speculations about the gamer’s patrilineal ancestry and prognostications about his reproductive prowess.
We attempt to keep score on the cricket chalk board, and someone pockets the chalk. The piece of tape on the floor to mark the International Darts Federation Standard Distance from the Dartboard is an invitation for a toe to creep over the line. Accusations follow. Cricket devolves to pushing, shoving, drinking bouts, trash-talking and thumb wars. Players are struck with a sudden urge to waltz. When the two fiercest competitors are facing off in the rubber game, someone finds Apocalypse Now or Blade Runner on television, and we sink into a meditative stupor.
The morning after is a solemn time. Texts are exchanged which are part thanks for a great evening, part cry for help, and part furtive inquiry as to last known whereabouts of one’s socks.
Great drink. Send recipe.
WTF? Two shots per?
I had #?
How # shots is that?
(A gin hangover will suspend your ability to do basic arithmetic. Not to worry. Your math skills will return when you regain your sense of taste and smell.)
Frozen waffles? Good idea? Bad idea?
I have learned all sorts of things about people I thought I knew well from watching and on occasion, yes, hearkening back to my homo erectus roots and joining the scrum.
Under the rules devised by COCMOCC, the candidates will enjoy a social drink or six and repair to the darts room for best of 27 cricket. They can even play in teams with their vice presidential running mates.
What purpose would this serve? It will be interesting to see if the candidate can remember his running mate’s name when he is in his cups. My guess is: No. Moreover, if we are going to entrust the launch codes for nuclear weapons to you, you should demonstrate an above average ability to hit your desired target. If you buckshot every dart you throw, you have no business ordering drone strikes.
Home renovation, painting compulsory
For the second challenge, the candidates should plan and execute a home renovation project. There should be at least three or four different jobs to do: Remove thirty year old wallpaper, prime and paint walls, do a bit of unpermitted demolition, carry large things up and down narrow flights of stairs and cram them through doorways, etc. There should be fewer tools than people, it should be 90 degrees with no air conditioning, and there should be a misunderstanding as to who was responsible for bringing the beer. This game is partly inspired by the Stanford Prison Experiment.
This is the stuff of serious negotiation, patience, strategy, resolution and design sense. This game tests the candidate’s ability to conceive of and to complete a project on time and within budget in a satisfactory manner. I do not think our crop of hopefuls will do well with this test. Also, we should know something about their aesthetic tastes before we let them loose in the White House. The People have the right to know if Dwell is your design bible, or if you plan to turn the Lincoln Bedroom into the Jungle Room.
IKEA: the final challenge
Walk through IKEA without descending into madness. It can’t be done. IKEA is a live action Rorshach test, operating under the guise of a cheap Swedish furniture store.
I went to IKEA in Stoughton, Massachusetts when I was jet-lagged from a trip to someplace far from Stoughton. There were four in our party when we set off: Himself, myself, the Commodore, and a Southern Belle Lesbian. (This will be important later.) At this moment in our lives, you would have been hard pressed to find four people who got along as famously as we. I forget who wanted what, but don’t blame the jet lag for my memory loss. IKEA’s floor plan is inspired by the River Lethe. After we passed through the fourth circle of IKEA, we were prepared to abandon our god, our creed, and our sexuality. We would have sold each other into sex slavery, or ordinary slavery, for that matter, if someone would lead us to the exit. The SBL announced in a silky drawl her readiness to service a male employee in the manner of his choosing in exchange for a map marking all of the exits and gave a description of the joys concealed within her clothes. The Commodore hinted darkly and loudly at the fascist subtext of IKEA’s aesthetic and the likely eugenical sympathies of its customers. Himself threatened all who hindered his path, reserving the worst invectives for the smallest of the children. I recall powerful feelings of nausea, hostility and panic. I wanted to crawl into the Tarva bed and weep for a mercy that I knew I would be denied. Miraculously, we all survived, but we were never the same people again. When you pass the Sjrofruck bol thingey the third time, your party’s jovial references to Winnie-the-Pooh will be silenced, and your mind will open to you like a flower, exposing the deep primordial memory of that simpler age before you had a brain stem, when you were an oozy slime in the ocean and had yet to contemplate the long struggle to shore. Good times. (I do not propose that the candidates assemble the furniture. I am not a monster. That test we will reserve for Supreme Court nominees. There is another test for those folks. Boulders and hills are involved.)
This challenge will show us how the candidate responds to sanity corroding stress and if he can keep his head when all about him are losing theirs and blaming it on him, etc. Candidly, I would not perform well in these scenarios, but I don’t want to command the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
No doubt you question my sincerity. The Office of President of the United States deserves more respect, you say. Measuring the candidate’s qualifications with bar sports and trips to hardware stores is glib, you say. The debates are glib, sez I. What do you learn about a candidate during a town hall meeting of select participants and screened questions? What do you learn from watching two waxen figures on a split screen? They don’t take the debates seriously, so why should we?
Maybe we need to rename this whole enterprise. Instead of the Presidential Debate, let’s call it the Presidential Audition. You don’t get to choose your script; we give you the script and then you dance for us. Do you want this part? You are going to have to jump through a hoop or two to get it. Before we give it to you, we need to know: Are you Guildenstern, Hamlet or Prince Hal?
Life is a cabaret, Old Chum.