It’s July 2008, and I am already suffering Electile Dysfunction, the symptoms including the inability to maintain an attention span and the chronic need to think about baseball when I’m discussing politics with my wife. I’ve had this malady before, so I know it’s not fatal (despite the occasional longing that it was) but it’s a condition that usually arrives in late October, when the virus is at its most contagious nationally; having it in July is disconcerting. (If it doesn’t pass by late October, any little tyke appearing at my front door chiming “trick or treat” in a Hillary mask is going to get a lump of coal.)
The press hailed this political primary season as historic because of the gender and race of the participants, a display of how far America has come to be seriously considering these atypical presidential candidates. History may mark 2008 as a watershed year, but in the present tense I rarely noticed those characteristics: These were politicians first, any other adjectives coming second. A rose by any other name will still inaccurately summarize another rose’s positions in search of a thorny sound byte.
More remarkable to me than each candidate’s singular modifiers was the appearance of partisan backbiting before there was even a partisan race: The Democratic party should note that if one party contender is making George W. Bush comparisons about the other, that’s not a healthy rivalry, it’s a house divided. Considering how much of the campaign featured the reviling of Bush (a non-candidate in this election), such a comparison should have been as verboten as references to Beelzebub in the class election at seminary school.
Yet the most interesting participants in the primary election drama were not the candidates at all, but the voters. This was the year of, “I just don’t have enough information yet”, of people reporting to the press that they were still trying to understand what the candidates really stood for. By the time May rolled around, it seemed that any information that could be gleaned should have been found, already, and I wondered about the cause of this epidemic of indecisiveness: Was it the voters, who claimed a desire to learn more but whose research included nothing more than the nightly news? The media, which seemed uninterested in answering or even acknowledging their viewers questions? Or was it the candidates themselves, who talked every day yet rarely said anything that hadn’t been said the day before?
Of course, the problem isn’t any one of these things, it’s all of these things. Pandering stump speeches, scripted Face the Nation visits, comically inane debate questions (did George Stephanopolous really ask, “Does Jeremiah Wright love America as much as you?”)—this is no way to get to know how a candidate will react under the pressure of the presidency. The current election process allows every White House wannabe to reveal only the information they want to reveal. Difficult questions can be dodged, the answer to “How will you handle the skyrocketing cost of healthcare” semantically mutating mid-response to an answer that inexplicably includes an anecdote about adult literacy.
We have no way of knowing how the candidates will perform under a genuine deadline, or how graceful they will be when faced with unexpected obstacles, or how well they can work with others under duress. These are the things that matter in a president, not the ability to deceive voters into believing half-truths and innuendos. (Though such skills have certainly benefited recent occupants of the Oval Office.)
While watching the final democratic debate of 2008, I could stand it no longer—wasn’t there a better way for us to learn more about the candidates? And if not, wasn’t there at least something more interesting to watch on TV that night? As I flipped through the stations, the answer to both questions was found on the same channel.
That answer? Iron Chef America.
For those unfamiliar with this Food Network show, Iron Chef America features a culinary showdown between a challenger (a chef from some renowned restaurant) and a resident Iron Chef (a pantheon of Food Network personalities and/or restaurant owners.) Each chef and their kitchen staff have 60 minutes to make five dishes using a secret ingredient that is revealed at the start of the show. (The secret ingredient can be anything, from blue foot chickens to rhubarb to oysters.) Each chef can use other items in their dishes, but each dish has to highlight the characteristics of the secret ingredient.
Iron Chef America is not a standard kitchen tutorial. With only 60 minutes to cook, chefs must choose creatively but carefully, a balancing act that considers the range of dishes that feature the main ingredient, the staff’s ability to execute their leader’s ambitions, and the balance of flavors that will impress the palettes of the three expert or celebrity judges.
Wouldn’t that be a great way to see how McCain and Obama really work? The show wouldn’t replace the election, it would replace the debates, offering genuine insights into their personalities with an hour of improvised banter rather than rehearsed answers to obvious and anticipated questions. Anyone who has ever cooked with a group of people knows that conversations meander wildly in the kitchen, minds half-engaged in banter and equally focused on chopping mirepoix. Anecdotes shared spark other’s memories, and people usually reveal themselves without guard, without artifice. Think of any house party you’ve attended—the most interesting conversations are invariably occurring in the kitchen, even if there isn’t anything on the stove. Kitchens are comforting. Kitchens make us feel at home.
For Iron Chef Oval Office (the show would obviously require such a name change, if only for avid readers of TV Guide) the candidates’ sous chefs and prep cooks would be actual campaign staffers. (Emeril Lagasse would not be allowed on a team, even if he’s working part-time as a campaign canvasser.) This will allow the viewers to see the teams in action, under pressure, in direct competition. Judges could be chosen from the national press corps—perhaps Chris Matthews from Fox News, Lou Dobbs from CNN and Charlie Rose from NPR—but the on-air judging would be a formality, just as the post-debate wrap-up by pundits sheds no additional light on the preceding debate. Americans watching at home would be the true judges.
I’m sure fans of the traditional, staged, stodgy debates will oppose this bold meld of popular culture and politics. One side will assert that their candidate would do better in an oratory format, concerned that America will be suspicious of even the most delicious couscous (“See, that’s why he makes me nervous—what does he have against rice?”) while the other side will worry that the differences in their political experience will not be properly demonstrated by their candidate’s centerpiece of Jello salad. (“Just because they serve it in nursing homes doesn’t mean he’s old.”)
But we need a new way to engage the voters, and more of the same isn’t going to do it. YouTube isn’t going to be the solution, because debate producers simply pick the same video questions that they would have had a moderator ask, or worse, try to get laughs by including a question from this year’s political version of William Hung; MySpace won’t be the answer because too many young men want to be “friends” with Barack in hopes of scoring points with the young women who support Barack; Network news won’t solve the problem because George Stephanopolous still has a job, so they clearly don’t recognize their own failures.
The time is right for Iron Chef Oval Office. Head-to-head competition on national television, creativity and craft on display for the voters to see. We could even include a couple of 800 numbers allowing viewers to text their vote for the winner, creating the nation’s first genuinely interactive pre-election opinion poll. True, the ability to improvise five delectable dishes that feature sweet potatoes or Cornish game hen may not provide an accurate insight into who can most deftly navigate the foreign policy challenges facing America on nearly every continent (as far as I know, we have no impending crisis in Australia) or how to manage an economy that is driving over a cliff with a tank full of $5 a gallon gas, but the traditional debates offer no such insights, either. And at least Iron Chef Oval Office would be fun to watch.