Thursday, April 17, 2008

Charlie Gibson: Don’t know much about history

Last night, while hosting what is being widely criticized as the worst-moderated of the dozens of debates in this cycle, ABC News anchor Charlie Gibson asked what might just be the stupidest, most ill-informed, must-have-gotten-an-F-in-high-school-civics question imaginable. In an attempt to play gotcha with Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama as they each declined to name the other vice president should they win, Gibson followed up with this:

Just to quote from the Constitution again, "In every case" -- Article II, Section 1 -- "after the choice of the president, the person having the greatest number of votes of the electors shall be the vice president."

If it was good enough in colonial times, why not in these times?

The question is so bad on so many fronts; it’s hard to know what he was thinking.

The qissue was whether or not the nominee would choose the other candidate to be their running mate. But the section of the Constitution that Gibson quotes refers to speaks about the general election. “After the choice of the president, the person having the greatest number of votes of the electors” would be the loser of the general election. Applying that section of the Constitution to the current election would mean that John McCain would be the vice president of a Democratic president. It would have nothing to do with selecting a VP during the nomination process.

Further, it “wasn’t good enough in local times.” The elections of 1796 and 1800 were so divisive that they nearly brought the government down, as the vice president was essentially the president’s fiercest opponent. It was bad enough that the process was scrapped with the ratification of the 12th amendment in 1804. In other words, Gibson was quoting a section of the Constitution that was repealed 204 years ago.

“Why not in these times?” Is Gibson proposing to repeal the 12th Amendment and go back to the original design of the Constitution? Or is he proposing that the political parties should follow the same design? That might at least be entertaining. Could you have seen John McCain as George Bush’s running mate in 2000, after the way Bush and his machine just eviscerated McCain in South Carolina? Or going back to 1980, could you envision Ted Kennedy as Jimmy Carter’s running mate as brutal as that campaign was?

And on a semantic note, nothing that happened when the Constitution was written in 1789 “was good enough in colonial times” since the United States hadn’t been colonies of Britain since July 4, 1776, in case Gibson forgot (and I can’t believe that he did, since he and co-moderator George Stephanopoulos spent plenty of time asking about the patriotism of Barack Obama and his acquaintances).

If you didn’t watch the debate, you might get the impression that Gibson was just following up off the cuff. If that were the case, then one might be able to argue that he just mangled the history a little in his mind. But those of us who watched the debate know that Gibson planned to use this line of questioning all along, because they flashed a graphic with this quote on the screen as he spoke. So the only conclusion is that Gibson either intentionally quoted a section of the constitution that had been repealed over two centuries ago in an effort to take it out of context, or he didn’t realize that the clause he used as the basis for his question was no longer operable. Either way, it was shameful.

What was also shameful was the fact that neither candidate either had the quickness on their feet or the intestinal fortitude to call Gibson on his outrageous premise. The follow-up went first to Clinton. Her best answer would have been something like “Do you realize that what you are suggesting would mean that John McCain would be my vice president? I don’t think it was ‘good enough’ for our forefathers, since the repealed it almost as soon as they enacted it 200 years ago.” Or something like that.

Not to mention that Obama is a constitutional law scholar. I’d have expected that he would be jumping out of his suit to rebut the absurd premise of the question. I realize that standing on stage in front of 11 million people probably puts enough strain in the mind, but he is supposed to know that stuff inside and out. I nearly fell out of my chair when I heard the question, and all I have is a pedestrian bachelor’s degree in history.

At least it appears that this will end up being the last debate of the primary season. The next one we hear will be between Obama and McCain sometime in October, with the less-historically-challenged Jim Lehrer most likely in charge. What a breath of fresh air that will be.

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