It was in 2008, the debate between vice presidential candidates Joe Biden and Sarah Palin. Biden had just scored his opponent for failing to directly answer a question from moderator Gwen Ifill. But Palin was hardly apologetic. "I may not answer the questions the way that either the moderator or you want to hear," she snapped, "but I'm going to talk straight to the American people and let them know my track record also."
In other words, she felt no particular obligation to answer the questions she was asked. Her obligation was to her talking points.
Not to pick on Palin. Truth is, there are few things more fully bipartisan than ducking a question. The art of making sound while saying nothing has become so ordinary and ubiquitous a part of politics as to defy notice, like wallpaper. The process takes on the flavor of twice-chewed gum, the players playing their prescribed roles in which interviewers pretend to believe they will get straight answers and politicians pretend to believe they have given them. And then TV and radio pundits spin the nothing that was said, tell us who to blame, who to scorn, who to fear, at decibel levels that would humble a jet engine.
Robert Kilmer has had enough. And he proposes a solution: a television series in which public figures debate the issues of the day under two simple rules:
1. The participants must answer questions directly.
2. They must do so without making reference to their opponent's argument, party or ideology.
"In other words," says Kilmer, "you have to show up with a solution and defend it. You're going to be asked follow-up questions. Your statements are going to be fact-checked in real time and appear on the screen." The moderator will be empowered to enforce those rules.
There's just one problem with all that: Kilmer is not a TV producer. Never has been. Rather, he is a University of Miami-trained lawyer with a one-man practice in his native Binghamton, N.Y. He was once a lawyer for the local Democratic Committee, but "came to believe that partisanship and party labels are just stumbling blocks to getting anything done." So he produced a version of what he calls the "You Defend It Debate" series on a local radio station. He's also made a pilot for the TV version he envisions. "Rudimentary" might be the kindest description for it.
All that to say his crusade is, in a word, quixotic.
But Kilmer is undaunted. Even though he's been pushing this for a few years without getting close to getting close to success. Kilmer is a man on a mission, driven by a simple, righteous conviction that when it comes to political discourse, the American people need and deserve better than they are getting.
"What I and people like me have in common and we're growing in number is, we've been involved with political parties and that's all well and good but at this point, we are so concerned about the level of debate in this country, the climate, that we don't necessarily care who wins the debate anymore as much as we care about the argument itself. The most popular shows out there often involve people behaving in a way that we would not tolerate from our 10-year-olds. And yet, they are the standards. They're No. 1."
"Partisanship and no-compromise politics and talking-points politics," says Kilmer, "are driving this country over a cliff."
Kilmer says he doesn't care about getting famous or rich. When his show was on the radio, he didn't even seek advertisers. No, he tilts at windmills because he can't not, because somebody's got to do something. Call it one citizen's rebuke of the failings of politics and media. And yes, Kilmer knows the odds are putting it mildly against him. Does that discourage him? He insists it does not.
"And I'll tell you why," he says. "Because I'm right about this."