“Ponytail Guy” and the Presidency

Ah, the town-hall debate format: that wonderful Oprah-style arrangement in which a hand-picked audience of allegedly normal Americans gets to lob questions at the candidates, who perch awkwardly on directors’ chairs, trying to look warm and approachable. What could be phonier?

Well, maybe a town-hall debate with rules like the ones in force tonight (hat tip Matt Yglesias):

–The questions will be culled from a group of 100 to 150 uncommitted likely voters in the audience and another one-third to come via the Internet. Brokaw selects which questions to ask from written queries submitted prior to the debate.

–The Gallup Organization makes sure the questioners reflect the demographic makeup of the nation.

–An audience member isn’t allowed to switch questions and will not be allowed a follow-up either. His or her microphone will be turned off after the question is read and a camera shot will only be shown of the person asking — not reacting.

–The moderator may not ask followups or make comments.

–McCain and Obama will be provided with director’s chairs, but they’re also allowed to stand. They can’t roam past their “designated area” marked on the stage and are not supposed to ask each other direct questions.

Even so, these things occasionally give rise to memorable moments. My favorite, in terms of revealing how far we’ve drifted from the Framers’ modest, limited conception of the president’s role, was the “ponytail guy” incident from a 1992 town-hall-style debate. This chopped-up YouTube clip will give you a little sense of what that was like.

But to really do it justice, you’ll need the transcript (or, better yet, the book):

The demand for presidential salvation hit its rhetorical nadir in the 1992 presidential debates, when a ponytailed social worker named Denton Walthall rose to ask Ross Perot, Bill Clinton, and President Bush the following question:

“The focus of my work as a domestic mediator is meeting the needs of the children that I work with, by way of their parents, and not the wants of their parents. And I ask the three of you, how can we, as symbolically the children of the future president, expect the two of you, the three of you to meet our needs, the needs in housing and in crime and you name it….”

“You name it,” indeed. Walthall followed up by asking,

“Could we cross our hearts; it sounds silly here, but could we make a commitment? You know, we’re not under oath at this point, but could you make a commitment to the citizens of the United States to meet our needs, and we have many, and not yours. Again, I have to repeat that, it’s a real need, I think, that we all have.”

Denton Walthall came in for a fair amount of criticism on the op-ed pages and talk radio airwaves. Yet under the hot lights, none of the candidates risked chastising him, however gently, for having an overly capacious view of presidential responsibility. Instead, they accepted his premise. Ross Perot said he’d take Walthall’s pledge, “no hedges, no ifs, ands and buts.” Governor Clinton argued with Perot about who was more authentic and less dependent on “spin doctors,” and noted that as governor, he’d “worked 12 years very hard… on the real problems of real people.” “It depends on how you define it,” President George H.W. Bush stammered his reply to Walthall,

“… I mean I – I think, in general, let’s talk about these – let’s talk about these issues; let’s talk about the programs, but in the Presidency a lot goes into it. Caring is – goes into it; that’s not particularly specific; strength goes into it, that’s not specific; standing up against aggression, that’s not specific in terms of a program. So I, in principle, I’ll take your point and think we ought to discuss child care, or whatever else it is.”

It’s hard to blame H.W.’s stammering on the Bush family’s notorious difficulty with words. Sad as it is to contemplate, the Bush-Walthall colloquy accurately described what by then had long been the dominant conception of the president’s role in modern American life. That role contains multitudes: it’s “not specific”; it’s “strength” “caring” “housing” “crime” “standing up against aggression,” “child care—or, indeed, “whatever else it is.” It’s a conception that’s fundamentally incompatible with limited, constitutional government.