Post Date: September 15, 2004
By Margie Kelley
When the 2004 presidential debates begin this month, few will be watching more closely than George Farah '05. Indeed, he's worried that most American voters will be dozing before the first question is asked or, worse, "voting with their remotes" by clicking over to something more entertaining, like major league baseball.
"The debates are the only times when you could have tens of millions of people watching the candidates," says Farah. "But 25 million fewer Americans watched the 2000 presidential debates than watched the 1992 debates. Sixty percent of American households watched in 1980, while only 30 percent watched in 2000, even though it was the closest election in the 20th century. Something is wrong."
What's wrong first became evident to Farah in 1996, when he watched with disgust as third-party candidate Ross Perot was frozen out of the debates, despite significant popular support.
"That piqued my interest," says Farah. "I did a little preliminary research and found that the process was being controlled discreetly. There were backdoor shenanigans going on, and the American public had no idea."
Passionate about politics, Farah went to work at The Center for Study of Responsive Law in Washington, D.C., during his senior year at Princeton. There, he worked closely with political activist Ralph Nader '58, whose third-party candidacy for president in 2000 also hit a roadblock when he was excluded from the debates.
"That was when I finally decided to investigate the process," says Farah, whose research resulted in his first book, "No Debate" (Seven Stories Press, April 2004), and led him to found Open Debates (www.opendebates.org), a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization aimed at reforming the debate process.
What Farah found was that the current presidential debate process has been governed since 1988 by the Commission on Presidential Debates, an organization of top brass from the Republican and Democratic parties which sets the parameters for the debates.
"Every four years, the [major parties] get together and negotiate secret agreements that dictate how the debates will be run, who will participate, who will ask what questions—even the podium heights," says Farah. "We find that unacceptable. Even Walter Cronkite has called the debates an unconscionable fraud."
Farah, who deeply admires Nader but does not support his current presidential bid, says the issue is about more than just the inclusion of third-party candidates.
"It's about transparency," he says. "If Republicans, Democrats, or any organization, are secretly controlling the most important public forum, it is unbelievably critical for the American people to be aware of that."
Open Debates ultimately aims to replace the CPD with the nonpartisan Citizens' Debate Commission, composed of leaders from 17 major civic organizations representing the full political spectrum. According to Farah, this commission would sponsor debates with more engaging formats, inclusion of other parties, a focus on critical topics of vital interest to voters and moderation by a diverse panel of citizens, journalists and civic leaders.
To that end, Farah and co-organizer Christopher Shaw have spent the last year garnering the support and participation of hundreds of organizations and thousands of individuals nationwide. He says educating the American people about the critical impact that the debate format has on the outcome of elections has been his obsession.
He spent much of his second year of law school shuttling between the Open Debates office in the National Press Building in Washington, D.C., and his classes in Cambridge, with side trips to major cities for radio and TV appearances and to meet with the editorial boards of major newspapers. While he doesn't expect full reform to take hold in this election cycle, Farah says the CPD has just announced some steps toward improved formats for the upcoming debates.
Committed as he is to political reform, Farah says he may well run for office someday. But in the short term, he hopes to work in a plaintiffs firm, "fighting for human rights, corporate accountability, pro-democracy issues or consumer protection."
Farah's energy seems limitless, fueled by an unwavering belief that he can make a difference.
"I think that's why Ralph Nader has been so important in my life," says Farah. "He was a private citizen, elected to nothing, yet he had the capacity to put seat belts in cars, to make our water and air cleaner, to make our campaigns and elections more transparent. If he can do that as a private citizen, I don't see any reason why Harvard Law School students—who have every privilege in the world—can't do something to contribute to the world and alleviate suffering. I guess my sense of justice, and injustice, comes from empathy and a belief that I actually can do something."