Madonna top-earning celebrity trumping Spielberg, Forbes says


She's still the Material Girl.

Pop diva Madonna 55, is the world's top-earning celebrity, according to a Forbes list released on Monday, raking in an estimated $125 million in the past year, mainly from her $305 million-grossing MDNA tour, but helped by sales of clothing, fragrance and various investments.

Director Steven Spielberg, who had a big hit last year with “Lincoln,” was a distant second with earnings of $100 million in the year ended June 2013, most of which came from his catalog of past hits such as “E.T.” and “Jurassic Park,” which continue to bring in big bucks.

“Madonna's success, at age 55, just goes to show the incredible power of a successful music career,” Forbes reporter Dorothy Pomerantz said, noting that 27-year-old pop singer Lady Gaga has often been said to be channeling Madonna's four-decade-long career.

“The young star is certainly emulating Madonna when it come to raking in money,” Forbes said, with her $80 million in earnings largely from the singer's “Born This Way Ball” world tour, placing Gaga 10th on the list.

Forbes compiles its annual list of celebrity earnings using input from agents, managers, producers and others to calculate its estimates for each celebrity's entertainment-related earnings. The figures do not reflect tax deductions, agent fees or “the other expenses of being a celebrity.”

Madonna's top spot compares with her previous peak of $110 million in 2009, but falls short of the $165 million taken in by Oprah Winfrey in the previous year, Forbes said.

Talk show queen and media mogul Winfrey took a big pay cut this year according to Forbes, falling to No. 13 on the list with earnings of $77 million.

At No. 3 with earnings of $95 million in the past year was a three-way tie among “50 Shades of Grey” author E.L. James, radio shock jock Howard Stern and music and television producer Simon Cowell.

Others in the top 10 earners included TV host Glenn Beck, director Michael Bay of the “Transformers” franchise, and thriller novelist James Patterson, who Forbes said was now the best-selling author of all time.

Both Spielberg and Bay also made last year's top 10, though with significantly larger earnings.

The full list of top-earning celebrities can be viewed at www.forbes.com.

Reporting by Chris Michaud; Editing by Piya Sinha-Roy and Eric Walsh

The future of Hollywood, according to Steven Spielberg


Can’t imagine shelling out $25 to see “Iron Man” in the theater? Soon you may not have a choice, says Steven Spielberg.

Per The Hollywood Reporter, the famed director predicts price variances at movie theaters, where “you’re gonna have to pay $25 for the next ‘Iron Man,’ you’re probably only going to have to pay $7 to see ‘Lincoln.’”

Spielberg introduced this theory on Wednesday in a speech at the University of Southern California. He links it to an “implosion” in the film industry brought on by the flopping of a handful of big budget movies. He shared the stage with George Lucas, who says he believes that Hollywood will soon look more like Broadway, putting out fewer films that stay in theaters for longer periods of time.

This made Spielberg dig up a memory from way back in  1982 when “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” stayed on the big screen for a year and four months. Even for a someone like Spielberg, who went on to amass after that hit, making movies is still an uphill battle these days. Lincoln, he says, almost ended up on HBO. He had to co-own his studio, he claims, in order to get Lincoln into theaters.

Not that Spielberg has anything against television—or video games, for that matter. He is currently working on the TV show version fo the Xbox 360 game “Halo.” Sounds interesting, but we’ll stick with his “Lincoln”-type material thank you very much (especially if it costs under $10).

Dunham doubles up at Globes, Israeli docs’ double Oscar nomination, Sandler’s countless Razzies


The 70th annual Golden Globe Awards kicked off the Hollywood awards season on Sunday, and it was in television that the Jewish people stood tall — notably Lena Dunham, the new queen and unchallenged ruler of television comedy.

Dunham, the creator of “Girls,” brought home two awards — for best actress as Hannah Horvath and for the HBO show itself, which won best comedy.

The Golden Globes are widely seen as a bellwhether for the Academy Awards (doubtful, since “Argo” beat Spielberg's Oscar favorite, “Lincoln”).

In her acceptance speech, a shaken Dunham said, ”This award is for every woman who felt like there wasn’t a space for her. This show has made a space for me.”

In addition, Dunham thanked a man named Chad Lowe. The reason for the random nod? During the 2000 Academy Awards, Lowe's then-wife, Hillary Swank, forgot to thank him as she accepted the best actress award for “Boys Don't Cry.” Dunham, the sweetheart that she is, promised Lowe she would mention him if she ever won an award — and so she did.

Another TV topper was “Homeland,” the Showtime CIA thriller based on the Israeli show “Prisoners of War.” The show won best drama, in addition to best actor for Damian Lewis and best actress for Claire Danes.

Daniel Day-Lewis, who portrays Abraham Lincoln in “Lincoln,” won best actor in a drama.

Oscar nods for Spielberg and Israeli documentaries

A few days prior to the Golden Globes, the nominees for the 85th Academy Awards were announced, and Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” led the way with 12, including for best film and best director. Spielberg is still expected to take both awards despite falling short in the Golden Globes to Ben Affleck of “Argo.”

On the Israeli side, the lack of presence in the Best Foreign Film category was compensated by a heavy presence in the Best Documentary field, with two nominees: “5 Broken Cameras” and “The Gatekeepers.” The former tells the story of a Palestinian farmer who tries to document Israeli settlers building homes and a barrier wall in the West Bank village of Bil’in.

“The Gatekeepers” is a series of interviews with former heads of Israel's counterterrorism agency, the Shin Bet, who describe their role carrying out operations against Palestinians.

“Family Guy” creator Seth MacFarlane will host the 85th Academy Awards on Feb. 24.

More Razzies expected for Sandler

In addition to celebrating Hollywood's best, the worst of showbiz is also recognized this season with the annual Razzies. As in past years, Adam Sandler is set to clean up, leading the way in nominations for his 2012 film ”That’s My Boy.”

Sandler’s film is nominated for worst picture, worst screen ensemble, worst director and worst screenplay. Sandler, 46, is nominated for worst actor and worst screen couple with Leighton Meester.

Sandler also dominated the Razzies last year for his horrendously unfunny comedy “Jack and Jill.”

This year, the tribe gets another Razzies shot with Barbra Streisand, who was nominated for worst actress for “Guilt Trip.”

Day-Lewis needed coaxing to play Abe

More about Spielberg's “Lincoln.” Ten years ago, when Spielberg was starting to work on his film about the 16th American president, he asked the Jewish actor Daniel Day-Lewis to star as the protagonist. Day-Lewis said no.

On Monday, Spielberg shared the rejection letter for the first time with the crowd at the New York Film Critics Circle Awards.

“It was a real pleasure just to sit and talk with you,” the letter reads. “I listened very carefully to what you had to say about this compelling history, and I’ve since read the script and found it in all the detail in which it describes these monumental events and in the compassionate portraits of all the principal characters, both powerful and moving. I can’t account for how at any given moment I feel the need to explore life as opposed to another, but I do know that I can only do this work if I feel almost as if there is no choice.”

Day-Lewis also writes, “I’m glad you’re making the film, I wish you the strength for it, and I send both my very best wishes and my sincere gratitude to you for having considered me.”

But Spielberg being Spielberg wouldn't take no for an answer. He sent Day-Lewis a second and third version of the script, both of which he declined as well. Spielberg then turned to Tony Kushner, the screenwriter with whom he collaborated for “Munich,” and Day-Lewis finally complied.

With a Golden Globe and possible Oscar, Day-Lewis likely has no regrets.

And then there's Maude

For those who have ever doubted the legitimacy of the acting of Maude Apatow, the daughter of celebrated filmmaker Judd Apatow, here’s reason to confirm you're a fan. In a deleted scene from Apatow’s recent film “This is 40,” Maude demonstrates that she is able to perfectly impersonate all three of the Kardashian sisters, even at the age of 15. First she mocks Khloe, whom she calls the smartest (“Well, out of all of them”) and then nasally mimics her ”Lamaaaaar.”

Maude then moves onto Kourtney, the sister she calls the most responsible, and puts on a typical Valley girl drawl to talk about Scott Disick, who is “so out of control.” Finally, she deadpeans into Kim in a higher pitched voice and whines about not having butt implants.

When Seth met Mindy

If anyone fits the role of a summer love at Jewish camp, it's Seth Rogan. The “Knocked Up” actor is set to guest star as Mindy Kaling’s childhood sweetheart from Jewish camp in Fox’s “The Mindy Project,” the network announced. In an episode titled “The One That Got Away” that is set to air Feb. 19, Mindy will reunite with Rogan’s character, Sam, who was the first boy she ever kissed, and the two will rekindle their romance after reminiscing about all those good times at Jewish camp.

Samberg is back

Like him or not, Andy Samberg is back. The Jewish comedian who left “Saturday Night Live” last year is planning to return to television soon. According to Entertainment Weekly, Fox ordered an untitled pilot about “a diverse group of detectives at a New York precinct.” The project will be executive produced by Dan Goor and Mike Schur of “Parks and Recreation.” This will be Samberg’s second television project since his departure from SNL. Last summer, Samberg starred in the successful British comedy “Cuckoo” as a hippie American who marries a British woman.

For more Jewish entertainment news, visit 6nobacon.com, the illegitimate child of JTA.

‘Homeland’ scores at Golden Globes


“Homeland,” a television drama based on an Israeli program, won for best drama at the Golden Globes Awards.

The Showtime program, based on “Hatufim,” or “Prisoners of War,” also received awards for best actor, Damian Lewis, and best actress, Claire Danes, at Sunday's awards ceremony.

Parts of the show's second season, as well as the first, were filmed in Israel.

The popular comedy series “Girls,” created by Lena Dunham, received the Golden Globe for best comedy. Dunham, who also stars in the show and is one of its writers, won as well for best actress in a comedy series.

“Argo,” a thriller based on the real-life plan to free American hostages in Iran by creating a fake movie production as a cover, won for best film drama and best director for Ben Affleck, beating out the favored “Lincoln,” directed by Steven Spielberg.

The Golden Globes are awarded annually by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association.

Letters to the Editor: Bill Maher, Witold Pilecki, ‘Lincoln’


A Word to the Unwise

I didn’t get around to reading the Dec. 7 issue of the Jewish Journal until late last night, and when I saw the Danielle Berrin column, “Q&A With Bill Maher,” the words of Joseph Welch came to mind when he said to despicable Sen. Joe McCarthy, “Have you no sense of decency, sir?”

Not only did Bill Maher use the “C-word” when talking about Sarah Palin, but he proudly defended his use of that hateful, disgusting anti-woman expletive.

How a family Jewish newspaper can treat this piece of filth with dignity and seriousness is beyond my understanding. What about all the articles devoted to women the Journal published over the years? Would you do a Q&A on any matter with David Duke? How about Louis Farrakhan?

I will never again look at another issue of the Journal, and I will inform my thousand-plus readers about this.

God, what has happened to our educated, intelligent, caring Jewish people?

Harvey B. Schechter
via e-mail

More Stories of the Righteous

I had never heard of Witold Pilecki and was quite surprised to be reading about him for the first time (“Beyond Bravery,” Dec. 7). Please continue to keep us informed about the non-Jews who helped us out during World War II. We will no longer walk meekly into ovens and turn our heads the other way. We are aware now and count on people like Rob Eshman to keep all of us Jews and non-Jews aware of helping each other, because, truly, are we all not one people?

Lolly Hellman
Venice Beach

History Reveals the Extent of Lincoln’s Greatness

Joseph Dostal’s letter about Abraham Lincoln was not fair to our greatest president (“ ‘Lincoln’ Twists History,” Nov. 30). It is estimated that there have been more than 7,000 biographies of Lincoln written — some adoring and some quite hostile. Lincoln experienced tremendous opposition during his presidency. Southerners considered him a dangerous radical, abolitionists considered him a procrastinator, “peaceniks” considered him a warmonger. Had it not been for Sherman’s spectacular victories, Lincoln’s own party would have dumped him after his first term. His mainstay of support came from the Evangelical community.

Study Lincoln’s second inaugural address — it is an amazing document! Lincoln tried to create a theodicy of the carnage of the Civil War; namely, he felt that the Civil War was Divine punishment for the sin of slavery. 

One-hundred-forty-seven years have passed since Lincoln’s presidency and we are just beginning to fathom his greatness. 

Rabbi Louis Feldman
Van Nuys

Appreciation for Journal’s Philanthropy Coverage

The Jewish Community Foundation applauds the Jewish Journal for its in-depth coverage of philanthropy. I was pleased to be included in your insightful story on using insurance as an effective tool for charitable giving (“The Gift of Life insurance,” Nov. 23).

However there is one point to clarify regarding the use of insurance to fund a Lion of Judah Endowment (LOJE). The Lion of Judah program is a vital initiative of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles to reach out to female donors, and LOJE donations referred to in the article support The Jewish Federation, not The Jewish Community Foundation.

The Foundation has collaborated over many years with The Jewish Federation and has helped establish numerous Lion of Judah endowments. With our expertise in handling a variety of assets — including insurance, securities, real estate and personal property, among others — The Foundation serves as a facilitator of charitable resources to The Jewish Federation, and, in particular, for women who wish to endow their annual gift to the Federation.

Elliot Kristal
Vice President, Charitable Gift Planning
Jewish Community Foundation
of Los Angeles

Importance of Jewish Ritual

I read with interest your profile of Jewish Federation chair Richard Sandler (“Richard Sandler: A Philanthropic Life,” Nov. 23). While it is not my intention to criticize Sandler’s (and his late father’s) level of Jewish ritual observance, I found it hard to reconcile two important statements made in the article. Sandler is dismayed by how many Jews are opting out of Jewish lives, because he understands the meaningfulness Jewish connection can offer. He then recounts how his grandfather taught his father that it was more important to live Jewish values than to follow all the rituals.

I am convinced that the reason so many Jews opt out of Jewish life is precisely because there cannot be a meaningful Jewish connection without Jewish ritual. It is Jewish ritual, which so often emphasizes community, family and individual, responsibility, unity and spirit that gave birth to “Jewish values.” Take away the former and you are left with an empty shell of the latter.

No wonder so many Jewish youth (in age and knowledge) fail to see the beauty of Jewish values — they have no idea what differentiated it from anything else.

Moshe Weiss
Sherman Oak

Linking to Lincoln on Chanukah


We need to celebrate a Lincoln Chanukah this year.

It’s not because of the new Spielberg movie — that gives us something to do on Christmas Day — but because of the 150th anniversary of a little-known event in American history that threatened to expel a portion of the Civil War-era Jewish population from their homes on the Festival of Lights.

On Dec. 17, 1862, during the heighth of the war, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant issued General Orders 11 expelling “Jews as a class” from a war zone that included areas of Tennessee, Mississippi and Kentucky within a 24-hour period. It was the first day of Chanukah.

At the time, Chanukah was not the major holiday it is now. But Grant’s order, if carried out, meant that entire families would be uprooted during the holiday and beyond, and exiled from their communities.

Today, relaxing in our home with family on Chanukah, retelling the Maccabee story that takes place in a far-off time and land, it’s uncomfortable to imagine a different story about our freedom that hits much closer to home.

On that day, Grant was attempting to cut off the black market sale of southern cotton, in which some Jewish and other traders were engaged.

As researched in the engaging new book “When General Grant Expelled the Jews” by the prominent historian Jonathan D. Sarna, we find that Grant's order was enforced in several towns in Union hands, including Paducah, Ky.; Holly Springs, Miss.; and Trenton, Tenn., among others.

“Only a few Jews were seriously affected by General Orders 11,” perhaps fewer than 100, according to Sarna, but news of the order and the resulting outrage was quickly spread by The Associated Press.

The B’nai B’rith sent a petition to Washington calling upon President Lincoln to “annul” the order. Other Jewish leaders moved to organize delegations to meet with Lincoln. A Jewish merchant from Paducah named Cesar Kaskel traveled to Washington on a mission to have the order overturned. Upon arrival he was able to arrange through an Ohio congressman a meeting with the president.

According to an account of the meeting that Sarna says is often quoted but most likely embellished, Lincoln, using biblical imagery, asked Kaskel, “And so the children of Israel were driven from the happy land of Canaan?” In response, Kaskel asks for “Father Abraham’s” protection, to which Lincoln replies, “And this protection they shall have at once.”

The reality seems to have been that when Lincoln finally heard of Grant’s order, he ordered the general in chief of the Army to countermand it.

An account by the prominent Cincinnati Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, who also had met with the president about the issue, provides Lincoln’s rationale: “I do not like to hear a class or nationality condemned on account of a few sinners.”

This Chanukah, then, with Lincoln on our minds, how should we commemorate Lincoln’s action to rescind what Sarna cites as “the most sweeping anti-Jewish regulation in all American History”?

Should we devise a stovepipe hat menorah? Fry up four score latkes or change the lyrics of the modern classic Peter Paul & Mary Chanukah song to “Light one candle for the Tennessee Children”?

Not necessary.

Jews going back to Lincoln’s presidency have found ways to connect before. After his assassination, expressing their sorrow, many rabbis delivered sermons that were collected in a book by Emanuel Hertz titled “Abraham Lincoln: The Tribute of the Synagogue.” The basis for the Library of Congress’ Alfred Whital Stern Collection of Lincolniana was donated by Alfred Stern, a Chicago businessman. There’s even a Lincoln Street in Jerusalem.

Continuing the connection is this year’s Steven Spielberg film about Lincoln’s role in the passage of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that abolished slavery. Watching the film, I found it to be an excellent way at Chanukah time to rededicate an interest in Lincoln’s heart, humor and wisdom.

Another film, “Saving Lincoln” by director Salvador Litvak, approaches the Lincoln story through the eyes of his bodyguard. It might prove another way to light up a Chanukah night.

Sarna’s book would be good for any night of the holiday, which many see as a struggle for freedom. For me it was a reminder that the dreidel's message — “a great miracle happened here” — can apply to the U.S. as well.

“In the end, General Orders 11 greatly strengthened America’s Jewish community,” Sarna writes. “The successful campaign to overturn the order made Jews more confident.” And Grant, to “repent” and to “rehabilitate himself with the Jewish community” during his two terms as president “appointed more Jews to office than had any of his predecessors.”

This Chanukah, when we stand before our lit chanukiyot reciting Hanerot Halalu, “These lights which we kindle recall the wondrous triumphs and the miraculous victories,” perhaps we can also recall the victories here of Cesar Kaskel, Rabbi Wise and ultimately Abraham Lincoln, who protected our freedom.

So maybe they weren’t exactly American Maccabees — but Maccabee style for sure.


Edmon J. Rodman is a JTA columnist who writes on Jewish life from Los Angeles. Contact him atedmojace@gmail.com.

Letters to the Editor: Gaza war, “Lincoln” and Special Needs


Hope for Peace With Hamas
 
When David Suissa wonders “If Hamas had the ability to murder thousands of Jews, wouldn’t they?” he is letting stereotypes get in the way of helpful analysis (“Pogroms Interrupted,” Nov. 23). He is also, in effect, arguing that Hamas is not an organization with which peace and order can be reached.
 
I believe he is wrong on both counts. Hamas gets much more political mileage from holding Israelis hostage than from killing them. The Gilad Shalit kidnapping is an indication of this. It is both a tragedy and a very big opportunity for peace that Israel and the Palestinians keep each other hostage. Their rising and reliable ability to kill each other — although on different scales — is precisely what ought to motivate leaders to negotiate peace, so that the killing does not recur. 
 
Barry H. Steiner
Professor of political science
California State University, Long Beach
 
 
 
David Suissa Responds:
 
That's right, professor. The 12,000 missiles that Hamas has sent into Israel were not intended to kill humans, but to capture hostages. Is that a serious comment? If you want to talk about hostages, just look at the Palestinians in Gaza who are forced to live in misery under the oppressive rule of Hamas despots and Jew-haters.”

Israeli Efforts Reduce Casualties

Israel spends $90,000 per Tamir rocket to shoot down a projectile (sometimes two) fired by Hamas toward Israeli civilian areas (“What Now?” Nov. 23). The projectiles may cost $200 to $5,000 to produce.
 
It would be quite simple to use Iron Dome to send a $200 mortar shell or shells right back to that originating point. However, Israel chooses instead to attempt pinpoint strikes on Hamas with airplanes, drones, etc. at a much higher cost and risk.
 
I know of no other country in history that has gone to this extent to avoid its own civilian casualties, reducing the likelihood of all-out war and its consequences on both sides, and the casualties on the other side’s civilians.
 
David Schechter
Los Angeles

‘Lincoln’ Twists History

Tom Teicholz perpetuates a number of errors and myths in his recent article “Lincoln, in the Abrahamic Tradition” (Nov. 16). He comes up with a fanciful theory that Lincoln had Jewish ancestry — something that has eluded great Lincoln biographers like Carl Sandburg and David Donald. It’s entirely based on unreliable, unprovable anecdotes.
 
Teicholz is mistaken when he states that Lincoln “lobbied the House of Representatives to pass the 13th Amendment.” In truth, as Lerone Bennett Jr., author of “Forced Into Glory: Abraham Lincoln’s White Dream” (Johnson Publishing Co.: 2000), states: “There is a pleasant fiction that Lincoln … became a flaming advocate of the amendment and used the power of his office to ensure its passage. There is no evidence, as Donald has noted, to support that fiction.”
 
Bennett was executive editor of Ebony magazine for several decades, and spent more than 20 years researching and writing his book. Bennett argues that it was Lincoln who was literally forced into supporting the amendment by other politicians, not the other way around as portrayed in the Spielberg film.
 
The scriptwriter, Tony Kushner, along with director Steven Spielberg, are spinning the same sort of mythology in their movie — and distorting the historical record in the process — as in the days of the Hollywood studio system, when the moguls Teicholz so admires twisted historical facts into pretzels in period movies.
 
Joseph Dostal
Van Nuys

 
Special-Needs Inclusion Exists
 
I would disagree with Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi’s assertion that little to nothing has been accomplished to include children and adults with disabilities into our Jewish community (“The Sound of the Breaking Dam,” Nov. 23). Since I was a bar mitzvah, I volunteered every Sunday for six years at Valley Beth Shalom’s Shaare Tikvah program, which is designed to give kids with special needs a chance to engage their Jewish identities as they learn about Jewish holidays, study the Hebrew language, sing Jewish songs and develop strong bonds with other kids, thus establishing their permanence and acceptance in the wider Los Angeles Jewish community. 
 
There is certainly a public awareness of this program, as KABC 7’s “Eyewitness News” recognized the amazing accomplishments of Shaare Tikvah and singled me out for my volunteer work. The news crew interviewed me at Camp Ramah in California, where I was working as a counselor, because Camp Ramah contains another amazing program for special-needs kids called Tikvah, in which many of my students were enrolled from the VBS Sunday school. The program gives an opportunity for these kids to engage in all of the typical summer camp activities and actually be a part of the sleep-away environment. Some of the older kids actually have various jobs throughout the camp. I can speak from personal experience that going to Jewish camp was a huge part of solidifying my role in the Jewish community, and that is exactly what these kids are getting as they, too, became a part of Camp Ramah. 
 
The Los Angeles Jewish community, of which I am a proud partner, creates an accessible environment for children with special needs to grow into their Jewish identity and make themselves an integral part of the Jewish community as a whole. 
 
Arye Lavin
USC sophomore, neuroscience major 

The next president’s gums


It’s surprising that 40 years passed between the Nixon-Kennedy debates in 1960, which won the largest viewing audience in television history until then,
and the airing of the first season of “Survivor,” a monster hit that launched the “reality” boom that’s dominated television ever since.

Those presidential debates were arguably the first reality show. What took so long for television executives to figure out that there’s gold in them thar unscripted hills?

Maybe it’s because “debate” is such a high-minded term. Maybe we’re too embarrassed to admit that the history of presidential debates is actually a branch of the history of show business.

We speak with reverence about the Nixon-Kennedy debates, as though judging their outcome by whose 5 o’clock shadow looked worse on TV doesn’t amount to Exhibit A of our susceptibility to stagecraft. We love recalling Ronald Reagan’s putting away the age issue with a gag (“I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent’s youth and inexperience”), as though his getting off a good joke were enough to undo our complicity in his subsequent cluelessness about Iran-Contra. We delight in noting how Al Gore’s sighing, George H.W. Bush’s looking at his watch and Michael Dukakis’ unwillingness to bite Bernie Shaw’s head off because of a hypothetical about his wife Kitty being raped, could well have lost them the White House, as though deciding presidential elections on “American Idol” criteria weren’t an indictment of the shallowness of the media-political complex.

Yet, we keep on insisting that how a candidate does in a presidential debate is a useful surrogate for how he would do as president. What was there about George W. Bush’s opposition to nation building in the 2000 debates that could have enabled us to anticipate his aggrandizing freedom-on-the-march agenda? What was it in Dick Cheney’s performance during the debates that could have prefigured the most arrogant flouting of the Constitution in the history of the Republic? For that matter, what was it that Bill Clinton said to Bob Dole in 1996 that might have forewarned us of the indiscipline and heartache to follow? Only hindsight makes any of those encounters illuminating.

As an inveterate goo-goo, I know I should be encouraged by the new proposal from the Commission on Presidential Debates: To junk the 30-second timers and to give the candidates eight 10-minute segments to discuss single topics that are lobbed in by a moderator who then withdraws to the sidelines. But this strikes me as tinkering at the margins.

Candidates have an innate horror of going off message. That’s why debate prep is a quadrennial growth industry in campaignland. Thick binders, with tabbed Qs & As on every conceivable topic, are already being assembled. Key phrases are being polled and focus-grouped. The most wounding attacks are being imagined and countered. Potentially embarrassing votes and quotes are being catalogued and repudiated. Jokes and one-liners are being contributed by advisers and gag-writers. Stand-ins for the opposition are being coached for rehearsal. Gimmicks and stunts are being compiled and considered: issuing a challenge to sign a no-new-taxes pledge, say, or to have your gums examined by a panel of independent periodontists.

Presidential debates are solemnly portrayed by the media as great learning opportunities for the public. But unless something goes very wrong, there is nothing substantive a candidate will say in a debate that he has never said before. We are conditioned by the press to expect spontaneity, candor, a bombshell, a Perry Mason ending. “Did you hear that? He’s for the Arabs! He admitted it!” Or: “See? He’s a just another Republican, in maverick’s clothing.” But what we actually get is political kabuki — scripted and choreographed down to the last gesture and gerund.

The early press reaction to the Commission on Presidential Debates’ proposed format is a microcosm of what now counts for political analysis. At two of the three debates, candidates will sit together at a table. This, we are told in various media accounts, will have the effect of neutralizing the height advantage that Obama, at 6 foot 1, has over McCain, who is 5 foot 9.

I don’t doubt that for some American voters, a candidate’s height is a worthy proxy for his presidentiality. Nor do I doubt that for other Americans, race or age or rumors will determine whom they choose. I am also aware — though it depresses me deeply — that the outcome of the election will likely depend on those voters who reach Election Day still undecided. Apparently a two-year campaign will have offered these swing voters in swing states insufficient information on which to base a decision.

That the result of a presidential race may depend on the limbic systems of a million or so Americans is a feature, not a bug, of universal suffrage. What Thomas Jefferson and James Madison proposed as countervailing measures to combat the potential dangers of self-government were a thriving public education system, an ingenious mechanism of checks and balances and a robust Fourth Estate. Unfortunately, none of these systems for safeguarding democracy from ignorance and subversion is in notably healthy shape today, which leaves us at the mercy of sound bites, canned quips and body language.

Instead of applauding genteel format tweaking, why don’t we junk the Commission on Presidential Debates entirely? It was an outrage when, in 1986, the two political parties seized control of the debates from the League of Women Voters. Ever since, the candidates have signed Memoranda of Understanding under party auspices that virtually guarantee the twin hazards of civic piety and packaged zingers.

Rather than holding the debates in college auditoriums full of “soft supporters,” why not broadcast one of them, say, from a crowded classroom in Dorsey High during lockdown and see which candidate can best connect with the future American workforce? Rather than pretending that questions like, “How can you do everything you promise and still balance the budget?” will get honest answers, why not ask the viewing audience to text in after each response whether they believed what they heard?

My first question for the candidates? “If you don’t do something in your first 100 days that pisses off half the public, you’ll be a lousy president who’ll break the country’s heart again. Energy, education, immigration, Iraq: nothing’s got easy answers. Which of you has the balls to tell us some hard ones?” Well, maybe not “pisses off” and “balls.” But you get the idea. And so should they.

Marty Kaplan is the Norman Lear Professor of Entertainment, Media and Society at the USC Annenberg School for Communication. His column appears weekly in this space. He can be reached at martyk@jewishjournal.com.