The Fourth Debate: Jokes You Won't Hear in a Battleground State

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Al Gore says he's for ordinary people. "Like the woman who's here tonight, whose husband is about to lose his job. She's struggling to get out of public housing and get a job of her own. Hillary Clinton, I want to fight for you!"

George W. Bush knows where his support is coming from. Looking out over a white-tie crowd of "have and have-mores," he declared, "Some people call you the elite, I call you my base."

The ghost of a four-term New York governor and failed presidential candidate named Al Smith turned out Thursday night to be the best debate moderator we've seen yet. George W. Bush and Al Gore, together on stage in Manhattan. For a fund-raiser — a uniquely joint, bipartisan fund-raiser, no less — that raised $900,000 for health care programs in New York. No issues, no attacks, no fuzzy math or see-how-much-I-know policy litanies. Just one-liners, one-liners, one-liners. Youngman for President.

There were the obligatory Al Smith jokes, of course. Gore, introduced by Smith's great-grandson, joked that "Your great-grandfather was my favorite kind of governor: the kind who ran for president and lost." (So, Al, things are fine with Bill, then?) Bush cracked that Smith's campaign, which imploded in a haze of anti-Catholic sentiment, "gives me hope that in America it's still not possible for a fellow named Al to be the commander-in-chief." Ha ha.

Sure, for all the jokes, this is not unvarnished candor — even Archbishop Edward Egan urged them to keep hold of "whoever is writing your material." And without the Rorschach questioning of a Jim Lehrer or a Bernard Shaw (or the good undecided people of St. Louis), the civic urgencies of the day (the ones on which we're all supposed to be casting our vote) went unaddressed.

In short, this is something that needs to be broadcast on national television — the fourth debate. Yes, the jokes are a little lame, and self-serving in their own way: Politicians do these dinners for two reasons: One, to take the sting out whatever foible's been dogging them lately. Two, to show the donor elite and the press that amid the heat and vitriol of this close-fought campaign, they can be good sports. But is that revelation only for the sophisticated ears of the moneybags and upper-crusters? Don't the voters deserve a little taste of this sort of thing on commercial-free primetime?

Like this one from Gore: "I never exaggerate — just ask my wife Tipper or any of our 11 children."

If he was a real populist, he'd be telling that one on the stump.