We Need to Talk

Now that our mayor’s race in Nashville is down to just two candidates, there’s one big improvement to our public process that I’d like to see in the next five weeks.

We obviously don’t need another full-stage candidate forum, or any comparable such format. What we do need is a conversation, not a debate. It would make the city’s runoff decision a lot clearer-cut for the rest of us.

So far we’ve been treated to what I call the “cattle-call” mode of candidates forums. Of course, it was made necessary by the very large number of candidates. Blessedly, we are past that point as the September 12 runoff vote draws closer.

In staging the 2019 forums to date, all the good moderators – David Plazas of The Tennessean and the TV anchors Tracy Korbet, Bob Mueller and Rhori Johnston – all have done commendable jobs of managing platforms full of politicians. (The many other non-televised forums, helpfully organized by various community organizations, have also soldiered through their own cattle-calls.)

But no more of those Busby Berkeley productions are necessary now. Good for the candidates, and good for the rest of us.

More important, it isn’t what Nashville voters need at this precise stage of this particular election. The choices our city government faces are not binary “yes” or “no” in nature. Issues of governance, like taxation and justice and basic service capacity, are complex and difficult. full of policy choices in which a mayor’s must grasp and sort out the typically many moving parts, on different subjects, often at the same time.

Now that there are only two contenders – both of them bright and accomplished public officials – there ought to be more air-time pre-structured for explaining how they think, what they believe, and where they intend to steer the government of Tennessee’s capital city.

I’m more curious how their minds work than how their speechwriters wordsmith.

What we need now are not stilted debates but (one or more) managed conversations where both the host and the candidates have a fighting chance to shed more light than heat, to present less blocked stagecraft and more revealing discussion, and fewer inane “gotcha” moments with the kind of cute zingers that chiefly entertain their own donors and thrill the consultant.

We need a simpler mode, in which a skillful moderator can press more deeply to enable a listener’s genuine understanding of contrasts. This would be a much better use of air-time and voter attention.

So how might this work? I think of a couple of models from Nashville’s own recent past.

I remember – and personally I miss – the interviews that Teddy Bart used to conduct with his radio guests. An even better model for modern television was how the beloved Channel 4 anchor Dan Miller used to host his Saturday evening show “Miller & Company.”

Dan never had more than two guests. His set, as I recall, was arranged more like an intimate banquette or settee at a private club. The studio lighting was always subdued.

No one shouted on Dan’s show, except for the occasional belly laugh when he or his guest said something funny. Importantly, no one was able to slip out of answering a tough question with the lame, “Sorry, my time is up.”

It was always just you and Dan and his guests, and the host knew what to do with any slipperiness. The infrequent guest who brought only hot air was easily revealed for the folks watching at home. The camera could move in close, and the audio was always crisp.

I hope whichever TV producer or newspaper editor is making the decisions for the next “candidate forum” will think hard about what Nashvillians need to make a smart choice in the election coming up. I hope they chose to present, like “Miller & Company” did, an intelligent hour (or two) of conversation with Mr. Cooper and Mr. Briley. This would help us all manage our own understandings about leadership for the next four years.

The choice of moderator now will likewise be a special decision. Not everyone can do what Dan or Teddy did, rest their good souls.

And remember this: Dan Miller’s show became a piece of our civic furniture. It was enormously popular, and ran for seven years. For a good reason.