That can’t have been the last one. Oh, I’m so angry. Hey, CNN (or MSNBC, or ABC, or NPR)—what if we have just one more? Please? In Pennsylvania? Or anywhere? It doesn’t even have to “count,” or anything…it could just be, you know, for fun. No? Well, that’s sad. But I guess I’ll have to accept it: last night’s was, in all likelihood, the last debate of the 2008 primary season.


But, you know, oh-blah-di, oh-blah-da, and whatnot: life goes on. I’m over it now, pretty much. Perhaps the five stages of grief go more quickly once you’ve had several months to come to terms with your loss; I’ve known for a while, after all, that this day would come. And I knew full well last night that I was probably watching the last of the primary debates’ forty-one Mohicans. I just didn’t think saying goodbye would be this…hard.

But, as I hum “My Heart Will Go On” quietly to myself, it’s worth stepping back, for a moment, to consider what, exactly, I’ll be keeping safe in my heart during these long months until the general-election debates. What, exactly, ended last night? And when it comes to these debates—what, exactly, is the point?

Because, for all the entertainment they offer—for all their anything-could-happen live broadcasts and their slick sets and their pretensions to provoking Profound Political Discourse—the debates are pretty much just pageants. And it’s pretty much always been that way. (See the first televised debate, 1960’s Nixon/Kennedy match-up, and the fact that the word most commonly associated with that monumental event is “stubble.”) The Shadow of Nixon—specifically, his five o’clock shadow—has hung heavy in the air over each subsequent debate, making participants acutely aware of the fact that debates, when televised, are as much about Image as Message. And, as a result, making each debate a defensive, rather than offensive, endeavor: as far as candidates are concerned, debates are less about sharing their policies with voters, and more about not screwing up. (Messages can change, after all, but a gaffe is forever.)

Debate moderators certainly didn’t make it that way—it’s the nature of the live-video beast—but they haven’t helped matters, either. Not only do they record each of the candidates’ on-air missteps, but they also, in their efforts to trip them up, litter the candidates’ paths with bunches’ worth of rhetorical banana peels. (See Brian Williams, asking Clinton, last night, to make a blanket statement of denial of the allegation that her camp leaked the photo that started Garb-gate. Since he was asking Clinton to account for the behavior of the thousands of people associated with her campaign, there was no way she could have answered that question to anyone’s satisfaction—and Williams had to know that.)

Russertism, as it’s now known, is by no means unique to Russert: the Quest for the Gotcha Moment is probably the most common thread in the debates. As we’ve noted numerous times, conflict is the debates’ common denominator—conflict not only between the moderator and the candidate, but also among the candidates themselves. And that’s been particularly evident this time around because, when it came to the Democratic Party’s Final Two, the candidates’ platforms and policies were nearly identical. Which meant that the debates were, more so than they have been in a while, controlled experiments: keeping candidates’ positions fairly constant, the moderators’ questions had to extend their reach—and the debates revealed as much about the moderators as the politicians they questioned. (Brian Williams, last night, to Obama: “How were her comments about you unfair?” Russert to Romney, during the Florida GOP debate: “Do you trust Senator McCain and Mayor Giuliani on the issue of being tax cutters?”)

Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.