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The final debate: Whoppers and bayonets

It was almost as if President Obama's advisors had said before the debate, "Don't agree with Romney on anything," while Romney's advisors might have said to their boy, "Agree with Obama as much as possible." After all, this third and final presidential debate of 2012 was supposed to be about foreign policy, an area in which Obama is expert and seasoned and in which former governor Romney has no enviable credentials.

He's just another Mitt on the street, shooting off his mouth.

These things are hard to predict, but it seems quite likely that the third debate will turn out to be the least-watched and lowest-rated. Yes, the Mideast is in turmoil, but when hasn't the Mideast been in turmoil? Back in the year 4? With the ravages of recession still occupying the American mind, we can all be forgiven for turning inward and not being all that preoccupied with foreign affairs. The question was, which of the two contenders would be the first to nudge the debate away from the planet and back to the country?

Not surprisingly, it was Romney. Moderator Bob Schieffer of CBS News asked the candidates to discuss Syria and other matters of relevance to national security, and Romney, trying to sound matter-of-fact about it, instead launched into his umpty-umpth diatribe about the national debt and then, in a transparent nod to Schieffer's question, declared that "debt is a threat to our national security. "

That was like shooting off the starting gun for the real debate, with both candidates frequently returning to domestic issues, mostly the economic kind. At the outset, I started a couple of lists in my notes: how many times would Obama call people "folks" and how long before Romney dragged us once more through the excruciating details of his "five-point plan" to save the economy? It was about 9:33, just over half an hour in, when Romney trotted out those "five simple steps" that he had already recited 5,000 times and then, only two or three minutes later, when Obama referred to high-income earners as "folks at the very top. "

In fact, though, neither of these two folks overdid their bad habits quite as relentlessly as in previous debates. Romney's worst habit -- trying to moderate as well as participate in the colloquy -- unfortunately had not gone away. It's an ugly tactic: he filibusters on and on, talking very fast as he repeats some favorite point, refusing to be interrupted by the moderator or by his opponent for anything less than fire in the hall, and then he stops suddenly and changes the subject. It's an old oratorical trick, to be sure -- don't answer the question "they" ask you, supply your own question from your own talking points or stale stump speech -- but Romney does it with a particularly childish yet bullying twist.

At least Obama was anything but the passive punching bag he'd been at the first debate (though a quick study of his blink rate early in the show made it look as though he could really go for a nap, but that passed), and he countered various Romney assertions emphatically: "Nothing Gov. Romney just said is true, " he declared after one harangue on U.S.-Israeli relations. One of Romney's lies, Obama said, was "probably the biggest whopper... told in this campaign. "

Obama then endeavored to correct Romney on a trip Obama had taken to Israel (and then, later, to the Mideast) and became effectively emotional recalling people he had met there.

Schieffer asked how the U. S. should respond if Israel notified the president and the Pentagon that Israeli planes were on their way to bomb Iran. Romney scolded Schieffer instead of answering: "Let's not do hypotheticals," he said in that snippy, irritatingly officious manner of his (the one that shouts, "I'm rich"). When Romney tried to get yet another filibuster going later, Schieffer shot him down. Romney complained that Obama had gotten too much time to "lay out" a proposal and Schieffer, nicely standing his ground, told Romney he'd been permitted to "lay out" a whole mess of proposals himself.

Obama and Romney agreed, agreeably, on several subjects, which made both of them look good, but then when Schieffer asked each man to speculate on "the greatest threat to this country," and Romney, seeming to ignore him, launched into a tirade about China, Obama said to him, "Governor, you keep trying to air-brush history."

Romney: "You're wrong, Mr. President."

Obama: "No, I am NOT wrong."

When you stand up to a bully, he just might back down. Romney fell back on repeating yet again his statistics on how bad unemployment is and how miraculously he will create millions and billions and trillions of jobs should he be elected next month.

Next month?!? Holy cow.

On NBC afterward, anchor Brian Williams expressed appreciation for Obama's sarcastic retort to a Romney allegation about the military being smaller and under-equipped compared to several decades ago. Obama had allowed as, yes, there are indeed fewer "horses and bayonets" than there were back in, say, Teddy Roosevelt's day. Williams liked that one.

NBC has made something of a contribution to coverage, much imitated, with post-debate "Truth Squad" reports from correspondent Andrea Mitchell. She and a harried staff try to fact-check candidates' claims moments after they make them. Unfortunately, the networks are still highly susceptible to charges of favoritism, so even if Romney were to make three times as many factual misstatements as Obama, NBC News would aim for "balance" by reporting an equal number of examples from both sides.

It's also slightly odd the way NBC runs comments from its own correspondents along the bottom of the screen as if they were Tweets sent in to the network from the outside world. At least NBC has correspondents, though. In its coverage, CBS keeps relying on reporters and experts from other places, including other news organizations. Network cost-cutting really becomes obvious, and embarrassing, at such moments.

Schieffer's make-up, combined with the lighting, made him look like Jacob Marley. But he did a capable job of keeping the talk moving along and keeping the candidates in line. You could tell he was getting a little pissed at Romney; when Romney made the bold proclamation that "I love teachers" (as a way of defending cuts in education), Schieffer said with gentle sarcasm, "I think we all love teachers, governor."

The tempo occasionally slowed to a dirge, as when Schieffer asked the dullest question of the night, "What is America's role in the world?" Oh good grief. He must really love teachers to ask a question right out of a high-school social-studies exam. An essay question, too. Schieffer said at the opening that all the questions were his and that no one had seen them in advance. When it comes time for debates again, the organizers might want to think seriously about changing that policy.

As it is, we can't imagine there'll be many protest marchers in the streets today demanding that we have still more presidential debates this year. They do serve as excellent fodder for "Saturday Night Live" sketches, but they still seem too constricted in format and design, and there is too much emphasis on adhering to arbitrary time constraints and organizational quirks.

In other words, they aren't perfect and probably have not appreciably improved since John F. Kennedy met Richard Nixon in the first debates half-a-century ago. Flaws aside, this year's crop were definitely Event Television, and depending on the topic and how frequently the candidates had already discussed it, they have provided many a compelling moment.

And if that sounds wishy-washy -- "fair and balanced, " as it were -- that's life. Let's at least hope that we have passed the age when there had to be any debate over whether or not to have debates. They're a given now, a part of the nation's political life, and we're inestimably better off for having them.

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