Sometimes it’s hard to know when Tom Brokaw is actually gauche or playing gauche; actually ironic or ironizing his own irony.

On Meet the Press, Brokaw played a clip of McCain’s interview last week with the editorial board of the Des Moines Register, featuring a woman off-camera who notes that “fairly conservative Republicans have expressed doubts about Palin.”

“Really!” says McCain, voice dripping acid. “I hadn’t detected that. And I haven’t detected that in the polls, I haven’t detected that amongst the base. We get 20,000 people that come to our, our rallies. So, again, I fundamentally disagree. Now, if there’s a Georgetown cocktail party person who, quote, calls himself a ‘conservative’ and doesn’t like her, good luck. Good luck.”

To which Brokaw added: “Now, that’s the John McCain that we’ve all come to know over the years… [Guest Peggy Noonan interrupted: “God bless him”] … from time to time, and people have found it to be part of his charm.”

The sarcastic McCain whom “we’ve all come to know over the years” (the “all” is a particularly nice touch) is, according to Brokaw, “charming.” Or else Brokaw was being sardonic himself when he spoke of McCain’s nastiness as “charm.”

As usual the roundtable featured zero outspoken liberals to one outspoken conservative, Noonan, who started a bit euphemistically about McCain and needed an assist to get to the obvious: “there’s a sense of containment that you see with him more and more, where he is containing a certain amount of hmm, indignation, anger, …whatever it is, but he has to contain it.” In the absence of a liberal counterpart around the table, it fell to Gwen Ifill, herself a paragon of self-restraint during the Thursday night debate, to come back: “Not terribly well. I mean, sarcasm really is not containment.”

Brokaw devoted much of his show to the polls and other tactical horserace paraphernalia. But he invited Noonan to express her sober view that the campaign falls short of what the country deserves:

We are living in the age of the unknowable, of weapons of mass destruction, of crazy people who can get and harness these things and who can come and hurt us….When you keep your mind on that fact and that we may in our country face difficult days ahead, and even immediately ahead, when you keep your mind on that, you realize, whoa, this old partisan gamesmanship, this ‘tear out his throat,’ all of that stuff, it’s over, it’s yesterday. What we need now is grace. We need real patriotism, which patriotism isn’t used as a weapon in a campaign….We got to be our best selves right now….We got to be adults. I sometimes think one of the problems in America is there are too many people that don’t want to embrace the role of the simple grown-up and show the maturity and forbearance of a grown-up.

Presumably the candidate deficient in “maturity” and “forbearance” was the senator from Arizona.

But while paying tribute to an America made up of adults that is therefore due an adult debate, Brokaw passed up several chances to upgrade the discourse. Consider, for example, the moment when David Yepsen of the Des Moines Register said:

in rural America the Republican brand is not doing as well as it once was. McCain still leads…all across the country in rural parts, but it’s not by this margin that he needs—

Brokaw had an ideal opportunity to shed some light. Given the recent jamboree of talk about “small towns” and “Main Street” as constituting an America that is more “real,” more “authentic,” more “heartland” than the rest of America, wouldn’t you think this would be an teachable moment for telling people how much of the country is actually rural? The 2000 census classifies 19.7 percent of the country as living outside metropolitan areas. Of these, it classifies 11.6 percent of the population as strictly rural—smaller than the percentage of African-Americans or Hispanics in the population, although these are frequently called “minorities.” Must the anchors go on genuflecting to a shrinking “heartland,” pandering as if its residents are the “real” American soul? There are 3.6 times as many Brooklynites as Alaskans, for example—are they chopped moose?

Brokaw closed with this: “Isn’t it also time for these candidates to…say to the American people, ‘You’ve got a role in this, too. You’ve got to step up.’ We’re not going to make gain without some pain here in the next year, and, in fact, the American people have been part of the problem that we have right now. A lot of them took loans that they should—ought not to have taken. Credit card debt is very high. And they want to turn a blind eye to things like entitlements, Medicare and how we’re going to pay for it.”

Evidently, Brokaw, like Noonan, is attached to an abstract idea of evenhandedness. The assumption is that, until proven otherwise, everyone’s equally nasty in a nasty world. Everyone’s equally greedy, equally guilty.

On nastiness, Brokaw did refrain from false equivalence. Earlier in the show, he noted that the McCain campaign has announced that smears directed against Obama’s “absence of character” and “absence of leadership qualities” constituted its systematic strategy. Meanwhile, according to Evan Tracey, who tracks national ad spending for the Campaign Media Analysis Group, McCain is devoting almost all his advertising to negative ads, while, to quote Greg Sargent of Talking Points Memo, “of [Obama’s] $2.4 million weekly, Tracey says, well over half —$1.4 million—is funding the spot called ‘Real Change,’ which criticizes the status quo but doesn’t mention McCain once.” So credit Brokaw with refraining from phony equivalence on that score.

But as for Brokaw’s parting statement, it reflected a largely Republican view of the world, camouflaged as a tribute to fairness and balance. “The American people have been part of the problem.” How much? Ten percent? A quarter? Three quarters? Half? Such a statement, while balanced, is empty. Of course those who availed themselves of cheap back-loaded loans, assuming the bubble would never burst, are complicit. Missing from this account: the deregulation that permitted the banks to pass the bucks and conceal the bubble’s dimensions. Missing from this account: the marketing apparatus that shoves credit cards into people’s hands. Missing too, under the general rubric of “entitlements”: the excellent solvency of the Social Security system, whose efficiency is a modern marvel—thanks to Congress for refusing the Bush privatization that John McCain supported.

Brokaw’s bland evasiveness here does not bode well for what we can expect from his turn as moderator, at this Tuesday’s debate. But then again, Brokaw lowered his own bar.

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Todd Gitlin , who teaches journalism at Columbia, is the author of a new book, Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street.