Conversation Now, not Debate

Lately whenever I’ve spoken in public – as in all the stops along the Crossing the Aisle book tour – I have found myself wanting to go light on the speechifying and heavier with the Q&A. In almost all situations anymore, I’d rather have a conversation than make a speech.

I also think most everybody in the room, be it large or small, shares that preference whenever possible. Of course, sometimes the pre-arranged format, deep on structure and light on spontaneity, is necessary for balance and fairness, as when there are multiple candidates in an Election Year forum.

But the “Conversation Mode,” let’s call it, is otherwise better whether I’m facing a couple dozen folks at a small book club meeting, or several hundred in a large banquet hall.

This thought came to me again yesterday (Sunday) afternoon, sitting in the vast sanctuary of 15th Avenue Baptist Church in Nashville. It was a public meeting of NOAH (Nashville Organized for Action and Hope) and their municipal election “Run-Off Edition” with Mayor David Briley and Councilman John Cooper, the final two candidates for Mayor of Nashville.

NOAH is a county-wide “social justice” coalition of 66 congregations and labor unions. NOAH makes a point of saying they don’t endorse candidates, and yet their events do a good job of eliciting beliefs and commitments on vital community issues. (On Sunday, NOAH facilitators zeroed in on criminal justice, affordable housing, economic equity and jobs, and education.)

The NOAH format had Briley and Cooper seated at the same table, but each was asked to respond to questions independently of the other. (NOAH’s chair, the Rev. Edward L. Thompson, instructed the two guests: “No cross-talk between candidates.”) So it went - each in turn stood and replied to each question, speaking into a hand-held microphone for all to hear.

My mind jumped ahead to what might happen in the fully televised “debates” coming over the next three weeks when Briley and Cooper close out their campaigns. I haven’t seen details on how those will be staged as yet, but my hope is that something fundamentally different can be done as they appear together on TV screens in our homes citywide Because TV is such an intimate medium, the Conversation Mode is highly indicated now.

Several weeks ago, in this space, I advocated precisely that for the next time just two candidates will sit together before a television audience. (If you missed that Field Note, just scroll down this page to the August 3 post titled “We Need to Talk.”) My recommendation is to design an update of the old “Miller & Company” Saturday evening TV show, the one Dan Miller hosted on Channel 4 back in the day. Media have definitely changed but “Miller & Company” was marvelous conversational television. It’s noteworthy that “M&C” ran for seven years in Nashville because of its strengths and it popularity.

I hope at least one of the local producers will take this to heart. It would require a special moderator who can sit there, in a third chair, and proactively manage a live on-air conversation between two strong-minded characters like Briley and Cooper. Engaging each other, at the same table, would be the best way now for all the rest of us to observe these two candidates more fully than before. We would get a better glimpse of how they work, how each thinks and responds in the moment, as they ask and answer each other, one-on-one, with all the city watching.

And then all the city, watching at home, just might have a clearer sense than many of us have now about who would be the better mayor for governing a complicated city through the next four years. It is harder than making a speech or tossing out a glib answer unchallenged. But it’s not supposed to be easy.

This much we know: These next four years ahead for Nashville will challenge the front office at our City Hall as never before. And suddenly all the snappy spots and sound-bites of the campaign trail will help us not at all.

What do you think?