Tell That to Khalid Sheik Mohammed!

Clinton and Dole mix it up on 60 Minutes.

Can Clinton and Dole mix any better than war and tax cuts?

Bill Clinton wouldn’t call it war. He demoted the gathering storm in the Middle East to “military action” and “conflict.” He looked pointedly unshocked by the idea of bombing Iraq and unimpressed at the thought of America’s near-guaranteed victory there.

Instead, as he faced off with Bob Dole—sort of—on 60 Minutes (CBS, 7 p.m.) Sunday night, Clinton called attention to the price of rebuilding Iraq. “Many billions,” he hazarded, warning that if we have this conflict ‘n’ cleanup to pay for—and a $400 billion deficit to think about—Bush shouldn’t be fixing to cut taxes.

A rush-job graphic drifted across the screen, looking lost. The show’s title will alternate from week to week: first “Clinton/Dole,” then “Dole/Clinton,” depending on who kicks off the debate. On Sunday night, the president and the senator had evidently been filmed separately against matching black-hole backgrounds, like the one on Charlie Rose (PBS); they never appeared on screen at the same time. (Last month, this tactful technique was also used on ABC’s The Bachelor: Aaron and Helene Tell All when heartbroken Helene couldn’t face Aaron.)

Dole then launched into a Kierkegaardian argument that was supremely hard to follow—something that touched on the problem of disjunctions or absolutes. He warned that “either” and “or” are dangerous words, and he ventured that one can often do two things at once. If Clinton had questions about the possibility of simultaneity, Dole proposed, he might “Tell that to Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the terrorist we just captured.” (Apparently, because Mohammed, a Pakistani who grew up in Kuwait,  was arrested during preparations for war against Iraq, he might be able to enlighten Clinton about the “either/or” fallacy.)

More cogently, Dole explained to Clinton that the American way of life included the right to have more money “instead of Washington taking it from us.” Since that’s the way of life we’re trying to protect from the Iraqis and Khalid Sheik Mohammed, Dole reasoned, we should have tax cuts in the spirit of victory.

Comeback Kid—himself a master of having this and that—then assured Dole that we can have everything: victory in Iraq, homeland security, education, Social Security, Medicaid. The upper 1-percenters just have to forfeit their miserly tax cut. That sounded good. Dole then said something clipped, his lips pursed; finally, he lashed out with an embarrassingly pointless punchline about donating his tax cut to the Clinton Library.

Clinton and Dole—one’s tie crimson, the other’s tie tomato—may have gotten into a heady mess by starting this new weekly two-and-a-half minute reprise of “Point-Counterpoint.” They have, however, given Dan Aykroyd occasion to resurrect his impression of Dole on Saturday Night Live. Last Saturday, Aykroyd brought back his original, pre-Norm MacDonald, mean-spirited, chip-on-shoulder Bob Dole, the Bob Dole who, from flinty Kansas, never had the luxury of five-speed shower heads. That itself is a gift to the electorate.