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Opening Up Presidential Debates

George Farah of McLean works to include more voices in national debates.

The presidential debates are boring, according to George Farah. With the same faces, the same topics and the same sound bites, the forum has become stale, lacking the surprises a free exchange of ideas can generate.

Farah, a third-year student at the Harvard School of Law and son of Nabila and Faud Farah of McLean, is a founder and executive director of Open Debates. Open Debates is a nonprofit, nonpartisan group established with the goal of reforming presidential election debates to include more candidates and more points of view. He is also a member of the Citizen's Debate Commission, the nonpartisan sponsor that Open Debates is promoting as an alternative to the current Commission on Presidential Debates. In February, Farah released a non-fiction book, "No Debate: How the Republican and Democratic Parties Secretly Control the Presidential Debates," published by Seven Stories Press.

"I skip a lot of classes," said Farah of his busy schedule. Most of the professors are understanding when he splits his time between Boston, Mass. and Washington, D.C., visiting his parents in McLean when he is nearby.

"I saw Ross Perot excluded" from the 1996 presidential debates, after having been included in the 1992 debates, said Farah. "Three quarters of Americans wanted to see him."

"It piqued my interest to see the wishes of voters ignored," said Farah.

That interest turned into Open Debates. The organization boasts a board of directors from a wide array of political affiliations, including John B. Anderson, 10-term member of the U.S. House of Representatives (R-IL) and independent candidate for president in 1980; Angela "Bay" Buchanan, sister of Patrick Buchanan and president of The American Cause; Pat Choate, vice-presidential candidate for the Reform party in 1996; and Paul M. Weyrich, founding president of the Heritage Foundation, among others. The group supports the Citizen's Debate Commission as an alternative to the current debate organizers, the Commission on Presidential Debates.

FOUNDED IN JANUARY, the Citizen's Debate Commission filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission alleging that the Commission on Presidential Debates is not non-partisan, as the commission claims it is, but is bi-partisan. As part of the complaint, the Citizen's Debate Commission released the Memoranda of Understanding for the 1988, 1992 and 1996 debates. The documents are secret agreements worked out between the Democratic and Republican campaigns for how the debates will be run, said Farah.

Before the 1988 election, the League of Women Voters ran the presidential debates. When it was approached with a 16-page document of debate requirements agreed upon by the George Bush and Michael Dukakis campaigns, one stipulation being that only candidates from the two major political parties be invited into the debate, the League of Women Voters refused to sponsor the debates. The Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD), created by Republican National Committee Chairman Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr. and Democratic National Committee Chairman Paul G. Kirk Jr., was willing to accept the terms of the debate presented to them.

In a press release, Nancy M. Neuman, then-president of the League, called the proposed debate format "devoid of substance, spontaneity and honest answers to tough questions. " She said that "The League of Women Voters has no intention of becoming an accessory to the hoodwinking of the American public."

The Citizens' Debate Commission is the first attempt since the League stepped down as debate sponsor to offer another, alternate sponsor to the CPD.

"It would have been easier in '96 or 2000, probably," said Farah, citing years when more third-party candidates were running for president. "We think our issue is a long-term issue."

"MY HOPE WOULD BE that we could generate public support for the idea" of wider presidential debates, said John Anderson. Anderson is a founding director of Open Debates and current chair of the Center for Voting and Democracy. "I think there would be a vast increase in the interest of the election."

"Yes, people like to hear what [the candidates] have to say, but you can argue both sides," said Kay Maxwell, current president of the League of Women Voters in Washington, D.C. She pointed out that including more candidates in the debates can lead to unwieldy numbers of candidates. Some people only want to see the front runners, she said.

Maxwell said that the League of Women Voters "did a great job" of running the debates before the current commission, but that the commission is "entrenched" and the League is not trying to take back control.

"THE ONLY WAY third parties or independent candidates or anyone who isn't a Ross Perot can reach tens of millions of people in our rigged political system is to get on those debates," said Ralph Nader, current independent presidential candidate. George Farah worked for Nader between his graduation from Princeton and attending Harvard Law School.

Nader said Farah is "a very energetic person, and very determined to end the control of the debate process by the two major political parties and the Commission on Presidential Debates."

"He is an outstanding young man, and even has a sense of humor," said Nader.

"I think we've shown the kind of spark and life that foretells an active presence on the political scene," said Anderson.

"I can assure you, four years from now, this [the Citizens' Debate Commission] will be up and running," said Farah.